The Pirates of Penzance is one of the most well-known and well-loved of the Savoy operas so it was a treat for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan to be able to
see a screening of this at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre on Saturday, June 6.
The traditional production, directed by Mike Leigh and under the baton of David Parry, featured the chorus and principals of the English National Opera and was a live streaming from the Coliseum Theatre.
The story follows the fortunes of the pirate apprentice Frederic. Having attained the age of 21 he is now leaving his pirate band to experience life outside the group for the first time. Before his departure, he reveals to the Pirate King the reason why his crew can’t make a living from piracy – they only seem to hijack ships manned by orphans, a fact which proves central to the plot.
As expected, the quality of the singing and orchestral expertise of the English National Opera were second to none with some excellent performances by
the principals, backed by a very strong chorus.
I loved the performance of Rebecca Pont Davis as Ruth, the ageing pirate maid of all work, who has designs on Frederic and strives to steer him away from the feminine charms of the Major General’s many daughters. Her facial expressions, highlighted by huge eyes akin to those of Marty Feldman, were a sight to behold on realising that her plans had failed.
Claudia Boyle’s coquettish characterisation of Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, suited the part to perfection and her singing in the famous aria Poor Wand’ring One, was a real highlight as was her lovelorn duet with Frederic (Robert Murray) in Act 2.
The Major General’s excellent delivery of his famous patter song, I am the very model of a modern Major General, the unaccompanied chorus Hail Poetry and the energy and conviction of the pirate band in performing With Catlike Tread were also noteworthy, not just for the high quality of singing but also for clarity of diction which helps so much in explaining the story.
The production was also enhanced by the costumes which suited the period perfectly. I particularly liked those of the ladies of the chorus who were dressed in ankle-length gowns and ankle boots similar to Doc Martens which surprisingly showed their dancing moves off to perfection. The Major General looked suitably martial in his traditional ceremonial attire, all the pirates looked very much the part and the policemen wore their Victorian uniforms with pride.
Minimalistic scenery provided the only concession to modernity in the production. In the first half, sets in three primary colours red, green and blue were used to depict the pirate ship, land, and sea and sky. In the second half the colour was a muted grey to tone in with the night time action and was complemented by the ladies, dressed in shades of pink, and subtle lighting.
This set proved particularly effective towards the end of the production when the policemen were waiting to ambush the pirate band bent on taking revenge on the Major General for deceiving them, and in portraying the reference to Queen Victoria during the finale.
However, although this was an extremely professional production, in some ways I found it disappointing. Much of the appeal of The Pirates of Penzance lies in its humour and to me this was lacking, not only in the orphan/often dialogue between the Major General and the Pirate King which is so central to the plot, but also in the portrayal of the policemen as extremely serious and morose boys in blue.
However, the live audience at the Coliseum seemed to love it, despite their enthusiastic applause not resulting in any extras in the form of encores.
Having been able to see this performance of Pirates, I really hope that we can see more of these professional productions made accessible to local people through screenings at the Pomegranate.