Musicality and Humour in Scottish Opera’s G&S

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Chorus of The Pirates of Penzance / John Owen Edwards (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 1.6.2013 (SRT)

The Pirate King – Stephen Page
Frederic – Sam Furness
Ruth – Rosie Aldridge
Mabel – Ellie Laugharne
Major-General Stanley – Richard Stuart
Sergeant of Police – Graeme Broadbent

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
Jamie Vartan (designer)
Colin Grenfell (lighting designer)
Steve Elias (choreographer)

The Pirates of Penzance. Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Credit:  KK Dundas.
The Pirates of Penzance. Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Credit: KK Dundas.

Scottish Opera end their 50th anniversary season in riotous good humour with an old-school production of The Pirates of Penzance. This is Gilbert and Sullivan as it should probably be: no reimaginings or reinterpretations; instead we get pirates and maidens, a ship and a beach, and even an enormous portrait of Queen Victoria in the final scene.

For a professional company with professional resources it can sometimes be difficult to know how to take G&S: do you treat it seriously and run it through as written, or do you treat the whole thing as if we enlightened members of the 21st century are looking back at a relic of an age that now seems rather quaint? The latter approach can sometimes lead to being patronising, and I’m glad Scottish Opera didn’t ever come close to that. Instead they paid the music the compliment of taking it seriously while surrounding it with a light-touch staging of toytown sets and cardboard flats that brought out the daft-as-a-brush humour but sensibly never tried to portray the characters as anything other than archetypes. The balance between sheer good humour and the knowing wink is a difficult one to strike and, for me, the company’s approach broadly worked. I found the policemen rather tiresome very quickly, but the daughters and the pirates were lots of fun, and everything was underpinned by strong musical values.

This was a co-production with the D’Oyly Carte company, so there is rich G&S heritage here. Conductor John Owen Edwards mercifully kept the whole thing moving and the sound from the pit fizzed with life. The central pair of Frederic and Mabel, both making their Scottish Opera debuts, worked very well indeed. Sam Furness’s light tenor voice was perfect for this role and Ellie Laugharne had a lovely way with the coloratura, light and delicate while still retaining lots of charm. Their duet O leave me not to pine was probably the highlight of the whole show for me, their voices blending beautifully and investing Sullivan’s (rather Mendelssohnian) music with perhaps more sympathy than it really deserved.

Stephen Page was a rollicking Pirate King and, for all his overacting, Graeme Broadbent had lots of vocal strength as the Sergeant of Police. The opposite was true for Richard Stuart who had all the Major-General’s patter and articulation but not much musicality. Rosie Aldridge looked and sounded good as Ruth, though the low range of the part didn’t really suit her voice. The other stars, though, were the chorus. Whether pirates, policemen or daughters, they threw themselves into their parts with aplomb and set the seal on an evening that was a lot of fun.

Sam Furness (Frederic), Ellie Laugharne (Mabel). The Pirates of Penzance. Scottish Opera, D'Oyly Carte . Credit KK Dundas.
Sam Furness (Frederic), Ellie Laugharne (Mabel). The Pirates of Penzance. Scottish Opera, D’Oyly Carte . Credit KK Dundas.

Pirates goes on tour to Inverness until 8th June, and then to various cities south of the border. Tickets are currently on sale for Scottish Opera’s 2013-14 season. For full details click here.

Simon Thompson