There is no shortage of pillars around the perimeter of the London Coliseum, but two more appeared onstage at the opening night of the English National Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance: a coloratura soprano and a booming bass who hold up the weight of this pleasant but uneven revival of Mike Leigh’s 2015 production of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s most delightful operetta. These two heavy-lifters are the effervescent Soraya Mafi as Mabel, the young woman who opens her heart to a repentant ex-pirate, and the veteran Sir John Tomlinson, in impeccable form as the hapless Sergeant of Police.
Mafi wields the shimmering vocal runs in her sensationally flirtatious “Poor Wandering One” as powerful storytelling tools. As she deploys Sullivan’s lilting melody to win over the startled Frederic (tenor David Webb), each staccato note, and every piercing, knowing glance to her bevy of sisters, helps to paint a crystalline portrait of a woman who knows how to get what she wants. She is just as good in the second act in the tender ballad, “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine,” and when she frenziedly sends the police force off to potential death in battle against the pirates. The latter scene pairs her with the adorably noble Tomlinson as the sergeant who puts up a brave front even as he and his men begin to panic. Tomlinson’s endearing gravitas derives from his commandingly resonant bass voice; Mafi and Tomlinson also sing with flawless diction, helping them to create characters that do not require the mediation of supertitles.
Like most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, The Pirates of Penzance boasts a truly ridiculous plot. Frederic, who has just completed his indentured servitude to an overly kind-hearted band of pirates, vows to use his newly earned freedom to destroy his former comrades. Nuttiness ensues as Frederic falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of a general, but then falls prey to an “ingenious paradox” involving leap year birthdays that might mean his sense of duty will require him to return to the pirate ship until he is eighty-four years old. Gilbert’s libretto crackles with wit (his stunning rhyming throughout still lands as a series of surprises), and Sullivan’s music, here conducted crisply by Gareth Jones, provides the greatest range of all of his scores, lovingly sending up his continental contemporaries including Verdi.
It is disappointing, then, that Mike Leigh’s staging (implemented by revival director Sarah Tipple) responds to that infinite variety with a rather staid and static production. Alison Chitty’s geometric abstract set looming over the proceedings does the cast no favours, and they are often left lingering in clumps or meandering imprecisely across the mainly empty stage (“Poor Wandering One” has never seemed so apropos). And while this Pirates steers clear of campness, the insistently straight-faced treatment of some understated sardonic moments masks the authors’ original tongue-in-cheek intentions. This is a staging that relies on individual performances, like Mafi’s and Tomlinson’s, to capture the comic vibrancy that the production otherwise lacks. (The members of Tomlinson’s jolly police force take his lead in their collectively hilarious performance; Leigh also stages their scenes more dynamically.)
Some of Mafi and Tomlinson’s onstage compatriots fare better than others. As the “very model of a modern major-general,” Andrew Shore is a delight, although his spoken scenes and lyrical bits work better than his somewhat underwhelming performance of that famous patter song. Lucy Schaufer offers a sympathetic and heartily voiced Ruth, the nursemaid who accidentally sent Frederic to his piratical upbringing years ago by mixing up pirate and pilot. In the role of the Pirate King, which usually threatens to steal the show, Ashley Riches sings nicely but makes little impression beyond his opening aria while Webb, as the operetta’s hero, struggles to supply either the vocal heft or stage presence necessary to match the orchestra and venue. Among the smaller roles, Angharad Lyddon’s rich alto voice particularly stands out (she plays Mabel’s sister Kate).
In the final scene, the unfurling of a monumental backdrop of the face of Queen Victoria startles the audience with its sudden outsize sense of silliness. More moments like these might have helped to animate this Pirates throughout, allowing both audience and singers to have as much fun as they do whenever Mafi’s feisty Mabel and Tomlinson’s bombastic Sergeant are onstage.
The Pirates of Penzance is playing at the London Coliseum until March 4.
Photo: Thomas Bowles