Mike Leigh, celebrated film director and self-proclaimed Gilbert & Sullivan fan, leads English National Opera’s latest venture into the world of G&S. The Pirates of Penzance is a bemusing and contrived plot even by G&S standards and is not quite as funny compared with other works by the famous duo. It does however have some lovely and memorable tunes that make up for that, for the most part. Performed in the huge space at The Coliseum, ENO’s rendition of this operetta classic certainly has musical scope; what concerns me is the traditional and almost underdeveloped aesthetic that Leigh has chosen.
Alison Chitty’s lovely set is simple but striking. The bold coloured screens come together as a camera lens, Leigh’s obvious intention, focusing the drama. The Coliseum is a large playing space and it is a clever trick – as other directors and designers have done before – to centre the spectators’ view in this way.
The most impressive aspect of this production is the singing, led by some great individual performances in the principal cast. Andrew Shore as ever is a joy to watch. This is his first Major General and I can’t quite believe it, considering how confident and assured his patter and comic timing is in the role. Joshua Bloom makes for a bombastic Pirate King, with loud and proud dialogue. He is one of a few that really appears to ham up the action, which I am glad to see. Robert Murray sings Frederic very well but appears a little bit older than the supposed 21 years (or five, if we’re going by birthdays) that one would like to see in the role. Playing the role of Mabel, Claudia Boyle shows off a soaring and beautiful voice. Her comic timing is spot on too, as is Rebecca de Pont Davies as the fantastically bug-eyed Ruth. There is some lovely subtle singing from all in the cast and there has been great attention given to detail in the finer moments of Sullivan’s score.
The music is fast-paced, perhaps to make up for the lack of humour in parts and choreography, which is dearly needed. At times the performance feels static and in dire need of a box-step or two. I feel the piece needs more life, lust and humour in it to really get going.
This is a production that will please a traditional G&S fan-base as well as opera buffs that appreciate some really good singing. However, as a new interpretation from the artistic powerhouse that is ENO, Leigh’s Pirates is not quite exciting enough for me.
The Pirates of Penzance plays at The Coliseum until 4 July. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.