English National Opera and Cast Impress in Mike Leigh’s Production of The Pirates of Penzance

13/02/2017

Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance: Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera / Gareth Jones. Coliseum, London, 9.2.2017. (CC)

JT

Sir John Tomlinson in Mike Leigh’s The Pirates of Penzance (c) Tom Bowles

Cast:
Major-General Stanley – Andrew Shore
The Pirate King – Ashley Riches
Frederic – David Webb
Sergeant of Police – Sir John Tomlinson
Mabel – Soraya Mafi
Ruth – Lucy Schaufer
Samuel – Johnny Herford
Edith – Katie Coventry
Kate – Angharad Lyddon
Isabel – Lydia Marchione

Production:
Director: Mike Leigh
Revival Director: Sarah Tipple
Designer: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Revival Lighting Designer: Andrew Cutbush
Choreographer – Francesca Jaynes

This is the first revival of Mike Leigh’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Leigh’s enthusiasm for G&S resulted in the BAFTA-winning film, Topsy Turvy, which chronicled the relationship between the two men. In an inspired cast shuffle, Soraya Mafi, who had been Edith last time round, is now a Mabel who actually steals the show (more on that later). Andrew Shore remains the Major-General, and rightly so, of course: it is difficult to imagine anyone else in this role, and Angharad Lyddon also returns (as Kate), while we get what might be justifiably referred to as “luxury casting” in Sir John Tomlinson, stalwart of Bayreuth, as the Sergeant of Police.

Leigh’s production seems to work even better on re-acquaintance. The simple but bright colours, the lack of modern “inserts” into the text (Gilbert’s jokes seem to stand perfectly well on their own two feet) and the expert use of perspective (the way we experience the ship turning and sailing off through one of the constructed “holes”) seem to add a sense of rightness and, perhaps most important, non-intrusiveness. One must not mistake non-interventionist with drab; this production is anything but.

As Frederick, we have David Webb, making his role debut. He is at present a Harewood Artist at ENO (debuting last year as the Sailor in Tristan). His voice is lyric and somewhat light; there was the distinct feeling from the stalls his voice might not make it to the Gods. It was, however, an appealing assumption. Yet he, and most of the rest of the cast in fact, was outshone by Soraya Mafi’s simply awe-inspiring Mabel. Her “Poor wand’ring one,” with its vocal pyrotechnics, was simply a show-stopper; she had lyricism, too, and power. One waits with anticipation as to her return in further roles at this house.

My experience of Ashley Riches has mainly been in early music (see my reviews of a 2014 Messiah, in which I found him somewhat nondescript, an excellent 2016 Fairy Queen, or a delightful Acis and Galatea at Milton Court, again in 2016). I notice he is to take the title role of the Don in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park this coming season, which on present evidence should certainly one worth checking out. Riches, it was clear, had tremendous fun as the Pirate King, bedecked piratically. This is not his ENO debut – that honour went to his assumption of Schaunard in last year’s La bohème – and one hopes this return will lead to him becoming a regular.

Lucy Schaufer (previously Swiss Grandmother in The Death of Klinghofer in the 2012 London premiere of that opera: see review) was a brilliantly amusing Ruth; Sir John Tomlinson, whose history with ENO goes back to the 1970s, was brilliant casting, his trademark long white hair spilling out from underneath his helmet, his facial expressions a model of their comedic kind, his voice in prime fitness. Ably supported by his constabulary brethren, the only word is delicious. Baritone Johnny Herford was an able and characterful Samuel. The clutch of girls, the daughters of the Major-General, was particularly delightful.

The conductor, Gareth Jones, was in charge of Glass’s The Perfect American in 2013, and here shaped a fine account of the overture, the orchestra’s ensemble perfectly judged. Strings in particular were wonderfully of one mind.

There were remarkably few miscalculations here; only the police’s “With cat-like tread” somehow failed to amuse, emerging as rather leaden. With the Chorus of English National Opera in fine fettle, this was a superb evening. The production continues to grow on me, but it is the sheer standard of the ensemble effort that impressed. And ensemble effort, after all, is what our beloved ENO is all about.

Colin Clarke

For more about performances by ENO visit https://www.eno.org/.

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