This review is from 'The Pirates of Penzance's first run in May 2015
In keeping with English National Opera tradition, film director Mike Leigh is a big name draw to this production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s best-loved operetta.
His filmic homage to the pair in ‘Topsy Turvy’ indicates him as obvious casting. Curiously, however, his contribution is the least commendable aspect of this overly respectful and rather static production. Indeed, such is the lack of natural movement that it often resembles an oratorio, offering two blocks of singers – a male chorus of rough pirates and a female one of the Major-General’s lovely daughters – from which the principals emerge for their arias. With traditional costumes all round and Alison Chitty’s minimal set designs consisting of a blue screen with a large port hole, it would require a hilarious spin on the 1879 show to ignite this. There isn’t one.
With such a respectful production, the comedy is laboured. Somehow the scale of the production and the intensity of the choral singing override the intimate, mannered self-mockery of the piece. Yet there is nothing new to compensate in this traditional production, one that owes everything to the choreographer Francesca Jaynes (who presumably devised the routines) and exemplary singing from both principals and chorus; accompanied in style by conductor David Parry and the reduced ENO Orchestra.
Robert Murray is a full-voiced tenor, surprising heroic as the ineffectual character of Frederic the Pirate Apprentice; his sweetheart Mabel is sung enchantingly by outstanding coloratura soprano Claudia Boyle; while, bass Joshua Bloom made a jolly, powerful Pirate King.
But baritone Andrew Shore, who regularly steals whichever comedy he is in, seems rather hampered as Major-General Stanley, labouring through a libretto in which the jokes are written down rather than discovered, while the famous patter song ‘The very model of a modern Major-General’ seems to get away from him. It’s symptomatic of a production that has much promise on paper, but struggles to find an edge.