National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company’s sunny Cornwall with affection for the nobility

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The 29th International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival [1] – Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance: Soloists and Chorus of the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, National Festival Orchestra / Murray Hipkin (conductor). Opera House, Buxton, 2.8.2023. (RJW)

The Pirates of Penzance: ‘Go, ye heroes, go to glory’ © Jane Stokes

The Frank Matcham theatre at Buxton had its house full to capacity (937 seats) for this production of The Pirates of Penzance by the vastly experienced Simon Butteriss. Appreciation was shown from the outset with absolute silence throughout the elegantly played overture where a ‘fly’s footfall’ could have been distinctly heard.

The usual cheery opening scene had a twist. It was set at night and only after the Pirate King’s song did the night change to day with a sunny Cornish vista. One was aware of fresh faces in the well-known National Gilbert & Sullivan Company and they all sang heartily to Sullivan’s glorious music.

The Festival Orchestra, led by Sally Robinson, was on form as usual and was careful to never drown the voices. All principals were strong and portrayed their characters well. A youthful Frederic (Sam Marston) and an ebullient Pirate King (Matthew Siveter) partnered each other well to maintain the expected sense of duty. Ruth (Gaynor Keeble) and Mabel (Emily Vine) kept their yearnings for the carefree Frederic under control and acted with conviction. Mabel’s effortless top notes were a welcome surprise. As Chief of Police, Bruce Graham is a veteran of the role having played in the original D’Oyly Carte Opera Company up to its closure in 1982. His presence is always welcome, and he did not disappoint with his velvety-toned voice and dry spoken subtleties; neither did the top-hatted policemen disappoint with their huge, buckled belts and mad antics. Their clumsy attitudes were lovely and much better than the Keystone Cops take-offs that we often get.

Having personally seen Major General Stanley played from the late 1950s by Peter Pratt, then John Reed, and by a number of singers at the Festival over recent years, they all give different interpretations. It is good to see Simon Butteriss find a new comic persona for this performance. Comically flat-footed in Act I, yet nicely balletic in Act II, his versatile frame put a smile on everyone’s faces before he opened his mouth. His diction was perfect and his interaction with the Pirate King over the ‘Orphan’ / ‘Often’ confusion was nicely played. I liked the footlights effect for ‘Hail Poetry’ as it put the chorus on a different plane, the intensity of light matching the intensity of singing.

The Pirates of Penzance: ‘In 1940 I of age shall be’ © Jane Stokes

A word must be said about the choreography for we were presented with some nice and original routines very much akin to those D’Oyly Carte ones we all liked. Memorable was the ‘Paradox’ trio with its clever arm-twisting and footwork routine. I did wonder if the light level was too high for the shadowy hiding of the police that followed.

This was a delightful production with good tempi set by Murray Hipkin (member of the music staff of English National Opera), and a very professional, energetic cast.

Raymond J Walker

Director – Simon Butteriss
Lighting – David Marsden
Choreography – Rae Piper and Paul Chantry

Simon Butteriss – Major General Stanley
Matthew Siveter – Pirate King
Harry Warburton – Samuel
Sam Marston – Frederic
Bruce Graham – Sergeant of the Police
Emily Vine – Mabel
Meriel Cunningham – Edith
Phoebe Smith – Kate
Alexandra Hazard – Isabel
Gaynor Keeble – Ruth

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