Precise Diction and Characterisation in Pirates of Penzance

Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance: Scottish Opera & D’Oyly Carte Opera Company / Derek Clark (conductor), Opera House, Manchester, England 11.6.2013 (RJW)


Major-General Stanley: Richard Suart
The Pirate King: Steven Page
Samuel: Andrew McTaggart
Frederic: Nicholas Sharratt
Sergeant of Police: Graeme Broadbent
Mabel: Rebecca Bottone
Ruth: Rosie Aldridge
Edith: Katie Grosset
Kate: Sioned Gwen Davis
Isabel: Catrine Kirkman


Designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell
Choreographer: Steve Elias
Chorus Master: John Owen Edwards
Director: Martin Lloyd-Evans

Pirates of Penzance
Pirates of Penzance Photo KK Dundas

This new partnership between Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte is welcome. It is decades since the original D’Oyly Carte Opera Company regularly attended Manchester’s Opera House for their two month season every year. Only the ghosts of Isidore Godfrey conducting Thomas Round, Donald Adams, Jean Hindmarsh, Valerie Masterson or Gillian Knight would now be likely to tread the boards of this Opera House stage.

The Pirates of Penzance is a favourite of G&S theatregoers and has weathered well with both an 80s Papp version and more recently an excellent Carl Rosa version. In Martin Lloyd-Evan’s production there are no messy distortions of Gilbert’s brilliant book and the presentation here is probably as fresh as the original première at the Opera Comique was in 1879. Today’s generation of audience will be impressed by the precise diction and characterisations that are so often taken for granted by seasoned Savoyards. Here, care has been taken in the stage direction to enhance nuances that sometimes get overlooked and inject some novel visual situations: there is an energetic feel to the presentation.

The characters are well cast both in singing and acting. Much of the plot hinges around Frederic, the pirate apprentice who, free of his indentures, is tricked into staying with the pirate band. Here, played by Nicholas Sharratt, he has strength of character, a good presence and carries the show well. Partnered by Rebecca Bottone (an impish Mabel), she provided a crisp delivery with excellent tops in her aria, ‘Poor wand’ring one’ and in the finales. (I much preferred her when she took off her ‘Keyhole Kate’ glasses since it then reveals a face one would wish to fall in love with.) Much sensitivity was shown by Mabel and Frederic in ‘Ah, leave me not to pine’, that was very much respected by the audience.

Rosie Aldridge (Ruth), a warm-toned mezzo, gave that clinging persistence Gilbert expects of Ruth. Her story, ‘When Frederic was a little lad’ had good clarity and nicely conveyed the essence of the opera’s plot. I see her as a good G&S singer able to offer those delightful facial contortions reminiscent of Jill Pert or Patricia Routledge.Steven Page (Pirate King) portrayed more a vagabond than a wayward peer in this portrayal. Everybody’s attention was held with his strong delivery and richly-resonant bass voice. Well supported by a very Scottish Samuel the opening scene had considerable impact. The Paradox trio of Act II was well presented by the King, Frederic and Ruth.

Much has been reported about a pythonesque interpretation, which only in one place was noticeably overworked, yet generally fitted Gilbert’s topsy-turvey comedy. For me, there was considerable polish to the production with the stage well-dressed by convincing vagabond pirates, prim society girls and believable policemen… well nearly! The comedy introduced by Graeme Broadbent (Sergeant of Police) with his fixed cheesy grin, amusing mannerisms and slick moves was hilarious and brightened up Act II. The flow, chorus groupings and choreography worked well to provide a memorable performance.

The first act’s use of stylized cutouts may well be an idea modelled on the Victorian children’s toy theatre which you would either adore or dislike. At times I found it difficult to grasp the idea of marrying the abstract backing of frozen waves with the convincing reality of the acting and accurate period costumes. Act II’s A Chapel by Moonlight took a different stylized approach with realistic inset chapel interior with exaggerated perspective and convincing detail. This was a nice touch but Sullivan’s lovely opening number was masked by continuous and futile slapstick business in the chorus that did nothing to complement either the situation or the mood. Colin Grenfell’s lighting was very good throughout and cues married well with changes in music mood. Scenic detail was subtly highlighted and an unobtrusive follow spot was used with first-class professionalism. Thankfully, an overstylized cutout sun in Act I was substituted by an authentic and realistically projected moon in Act II. Perhaps the setting might have been enhanced by use of more cross lighting and splashes of colour to enrich the ‘Goffin-grey’ set.

The chorus was outstanding and well rehearsed under John Owen Edwards. The Hail Poetry number and finale of Act I were strong musical sections in this performance. The orchestra played Sullivan’s score exceptionally well with a sensitive adherence to dynamics and the pace was lively under the Derek Clark’s direction.

The production having arrived in Manchester from Scotland goes on to Bristol, Newcastle, Oxford, and Cardiff.

Raymond J Walker

For another review of this production see