Friday, 10 February 2017

Taking them seriouly: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance at the London Coliseum.

Andrew Shore, Soraya Mafi, David Webb and company - ENO - The Pirate of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Andrew Shore, Soraya Mafi, David Webb and company - ENO - The Pirate of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Gilbert and Sullivan The Pirates of Penzance; David Webb, Soraya Mafi, Andrew Shore, Ashley Riches, John Tomlinson, Lucy Schaufer, Katie Coventry, Angharad Lyddon, Johnny Herford, dir: Mike Leigh/Sarah Tipple, cond: Gareth Jones; English National Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Musical and dramatic delights in this strongly cast revival

David Webb, Ashley Riches, Johnny Herford and ENO Chorus - ENO - The Pirate of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
David Webb, Ashley Riches, Johnny Herford and ENO Chorus
photo Tom Bowles
'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan any more', this was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up made it doubly welcome.

ENO had put together a strong cast, at the London Coliseum 9 February 2017, which combined youth and experience. Frederic and Mabel were played by ENO Harewood Artists David Webb and Soraya Mafi with Ashley Riches, a former member of the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Programme, as the Pirate King, plus Johnny Herford as Samuel, Katie Coventry as Edith, Angharad Lyddon as Kate and Lydia Marchione as Isabel. Experience was represented by Andrew Shore and Lucy Schaufer returning to the roles of the Major General and Ruth, and Sir John Tomlinson who sang the role of the Sergeant of the Police. The revival director was Sarah Tipple, with designs by Alison Chitty, lighting by Paul Pyant revived by Andrew Cutbush and choreography by Francesca Jaynes. Gareth Jones conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Leigh's production had the virtue that it had no particular axe to grind, and there was no re-writing or updating. It was not presented straight, evidently when Gilbert directed the piece he wanted the pirates to be serious in the intent and the comedy came from the unlikely combination of events; Gilbert's plots work from such unlikely juxtapositions. Leigh's pirates had a distinctly theatrical element to them, certainly larger than life and Chitty's designs, with the areas of plain flat colours in the sets and cutouts, rather emphasised the cartoon nature of the piece.

Ashly Riches, David Webb, Lucy Schaufer - ENO - The Pirate of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Ashly Riches, David Webb, Lucy Schaufer - photo Tom Bowles
The opening scene had a vivid blue drop, with a cut-out revealing a vermilion ship's deck, populated by some very colourful pirates. Ashley Riches's pirate king, wearing an elaborate outfit which would have made Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow proud, was wonderfully theatrical and Riches was almost unrecognisable under a forest of facial hair. With his height he had the physique du role, and combined command with charm, though perhaps he was just a little too nice veering towards the picture-book rather than real pirate. He was ably supported by Johnny Herford's Samuel; clearly Herford had been watching Hollywood films. Slightly apart but still dutifully a pirate was David Webb's Frederick, looking rather dashing and displaying a fine lyric tenor voice. Lucy Schaufer's Ruth followed him round gamely, creating comedy by really taking the character seriously.

Part of the reason for the enduring popularity of G&S with amateur and semi-professional companies is that the operas give these sort of opportunities for ensembles, with each group having a carefully delineated sense of character. So in addition to pirates, here we had a delightful chorus of Major-General Stanley's daughters, led by the pert Mabel of Soraya Mafi and supported by Katie Coventry, Angharad Lyddon and Lydia Marchione who stepped out of the ensemble with deft charm. And in the second act of course, the timid Policemen led with brilliant comic timing by Sir John Tomlinson.

Soraya Mafi, Andrew Shore, Angharad Lyddon Katie Coventry - ENO - The Pirates of Penzance - photo -Tom Bowles
Soraya Mafi, Andrew Shore, Angharad Lyddon, Katie Coventry
photo -Tom Bowles
The second act also showed another reason why people love these operas, after a toe-tapping chorus from the policemen, the pirates enter with another memorable chorus and then with a deft hand Sullivan puts the two together, to create a truly memorable ensemble. The production responded to this with a wonderful image. The policemen retreated behind the flat, which had a circular cut out, and when they made their contributions to the ensemble heads popped up from all around the circle in a surreal manner.

This was the charm of the production, the way Leigh and Tipple had re-thought the staging so that it provided a series of striking images which matched Gilbert's proto Theatre of the Absurd. We were encouraged to revel in the unlikely juxtapositions, rather than trying to make them relevant or provide social comment. I have to confess, I rather wondered what audiences in the co-producing cities thought as the production was shared with Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg and the Saarlandische Staatstheater Saarbrucken.

The London Coliseum is frankly rather too big for Gilbert and Sullivan, an ideal performance requires a more intimate communicability than is possible in the space. But this is the sort of piece which English National Opera should be including in its repertoire, and I was impressed with the way the cast all worked very hard to make the piece work. The sung sections had surtitles, the dialogue not. Diction varied from the creditable to the superb, with John Tomlinson and Lucy Schaufer really demonstrating peerless communicating skills.

Andrew Shore, Lucy Schaufer, Ashley Riches and ENO Chorus - ENO The Pirates of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Andrew Shore, Lucy Schaufer, Ashley Riches and ENO Chorus - ENO -  The Pirates of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Musically this was a very strong performance. It helps that Sullivan's set piece send up the various operas of the day, and everyone clearly relished the cod-Verdi and cod-Donizetti moments. There were a number of dramatic accompanied recitative moments which were funny because they were done so dead-pan; again the juxtaposition of the unlikely.

Soraya Mafi and ENO Chorus - ENO The Pirates of Penzance - photo Tom Bowles
Soraya Mafi and ENO Chorus - photo Tom Bowles
Soraya Mafi was a brilliant, feisty Mabel, combining pertness and winning charm with a brightly accurate coloratura. The way she stepped out of the chorus for her first entry was both visually and vocally dazzling, leading into a lovely confident account of 'Poor wandering one' complete with sparkling vocal decorations. David Webb brought out the right sense of lyric charm and serious intent to the role of Frederick (the opera's subtitle 'The Slave to Duty' applied to Frederick). Perhaps his voice lacked ideal ease at the very top, but he made a lovely pairing with Mafi, a winning pair.

Andrew Shore is a consummate theatrical animal and his Major-General Stanley was a superb creation, from the way he played ring-a-roses with his daughters to the telling 'asides' to the audience. Even his crying was funny. I am the very model of a modern Major General' was perhaps a trifle to steady in tempo, but again we have to consider the effect of the large theatre, and overall Shore showed can also bring out the text in just the right manner.

Ashley Riches - ENO - The Pirates of Penzance  - photo Tom Bowles
Ashley Riches - photo Tom Bowles
Lucy Schaufer demonstrated the sort of real contralto voice for which Sullivan wrote the part of Ruth, using her lower register to devastating effect. Yet Schaufer brought a poignant charm to Ruth as well, making her a real person, bringing our sympathy and taking the sting out of Gilbert's fascinating with 'elderly' women (Ruth is 47!) in love. Sir John Tomlinson brought his familiar combination of charm, character and devastating clarity of diction to the Sergeant of Police, but this was a characterful creation of a personality and certainly not a celebrity turn. Tomlinson showed himself in fresh vocal form and brought great fun to the music. As I have said, the smaller roles were all well taken combining character with vocal enjoyment; Sullivan is careful to provide opportunities for his smaller roles and all took them.

The chorus was similarly on great form, delivering vocal finesse, character and words, whilst executing the busy choreographic staging. There were moments when ensemble was not quite as sharp as it could have been and you sensed that Gareth Jones, vocal ensemble, chorus and orchestra needed a little more rehearsal to bed in properly but that will come in subsequent performances.

Jones showed a deft hand with Sullivan's music, keeping things moving whilst ensuring there was a nice rhythmic bounce and a space for the decorative moments in the vocal lines.

This seems to be one of those productions which is ripening as it is revived, and the latest incarnation is providing some fine opportunities for young artists. There is scope for a more pointed attitude to Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas and I hope the ENO considers mounting a production of another one. But this revival has the virtue of taking both Gilbert and Sullivan seriously.

This review also appears in OperaToday.com.

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