In review: The Pirates of Penzance at ENOReview
What fun it was to finally hear some Gilbert & Sullivan in London, England. Mike Leigh’s 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance for English National Opera has kicked off its first return to the stage with the help of revival director Sarah Tipple. A true lover of G&S, Leigh is the President of both the W.S. Gilbert Society and the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society; he also wrote and directed Topsy Turvy, the BAFTA Award-winning film about the lives of Sullivan and Gilbert.
With the ENO Orchestra sounding the best we’ve heard them under Gareth Jones, this Pirates of Penzance has a ball with everything that’s silly and absurd about the show. Broad, flat geometric shapes create imaginative, flexible sets. Saturated blues and reds place us properly in Britain; flashes of green come with the young, fresh flock of Stanley girls, and a murky purple took the story into the nighttime hours. Mirroring the exaggerated love of G&S fun, the orchestra played with all of the tight bounce in this bit of British Rossini, everything full of a sense of humour.
The cast is an exciting mix of rising stars and ENO favourites. The young love-birds Frederic and Mabel were sung by ENO Harewood Artists David Webb and Soraya Mafi. Webb had a warm, youthful sound and charming blank-slate look about him that painted Frederic as a wide-eyed, well-intentioned man of curiosity. Mafi’s bell-like sound was both beautiful and funny, and her huge Hollywood eyes helped make Mabel utterly likeable, distinguishable from the silly gaggle of excitable young girls.
Bass-baritone Ashley Riches was a swashbuckling Pirate King, his voice matching the broad space he took up onstage. His clear, regal sound went well with his tall, dangerous look, and there seemed a dose of sexual magnetism thrown in for good measure. Earning easy sympathy from the audience with the pirates’ jabs at her advanced age, Lucy Shaufer was a rough-around-the-edges Lucy. She sang the unforgiving role with a cavalier, drama-first approach, yet with one of the most impressive chest voice mixes we’ve ever heard.
Andrew Shore was a Major-General Stanley incarnate. He blustered his way through perhaps the most exaggerated role in Pirates, creating funny tableaus with his ridiculous numbers of daughters and his heightened emotional states. The laughs certainly lasted long after his famed “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”. ENO veteran Sir John Tomlinson was a hilarious Seargeant of Police; his enormous voice led the bumbling troupe of cops, paving the way for some of the best Monty-Python-esque slapstick comedy of the night. (Bested only by the fantastic “cat-like tread” bit with the pirates.)
The night felt like an honest slice of English operatic culture. It was a treat to sit in the audience, amid the laughter at the Queen Victoria gag; for a Canadian abroad, it was an exciting combination of G&S, beloved singers, and the ENO itself. The Pirates of Penzance runs until March 25 at the London Coliseum, and it’s a sure-fire way to have a great night out. For full details and ticket information, click here.