LONDON (Reuters) - Film and theater director Mike Leigh’s operatic debut with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” immerses us in a world of innocent fun where the morals of Britain’s Victorian era are gently lampooned while avoiding tiresome moralizing.
The comic opera features tender-hearted pirates who will not attack anyone who claims to be an orphan while our hero Frederic joined their ranks as a small boy after his hard-of-hearing nursery maid was told to have him apprenticed as a pilot.
Leigh is a lifelong fan of the British duo and was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar for the 1999 film “Topsy Turvy” about their lives. He also directed the movie.
His take on the opera opened at London’s Coliseum on Saturday and the English National Opera (ENO) have added two extra performances to its run due to heavy demand for tickets.
Much of the action is framed within a huge circular cutout from the backdrop, creating the feel of a children’s comic book. The strong colors and clear lines of the set also evoke a child’s world of certainty.
Irish soprano Claudia Boyle is a standout as Mabel, who responds positively to wife-hunting Frederic’s desperate plea for anyone with a homely face and bad complexion who had given up all hope of finding a husband.
Australian/American bass Joshua Bloom is also outstanding as the Pirate King.
British baritone Andrew Shore is less impressive as the Major-General, trying too hard to be funny rather than letting W.S. Gilbert’s witty lyrics work their magic.
His performance of one of the comic opera’s most famous songs - “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” - seems heavy-handed in a production which elsewhere has a delightfully light touch.
The only other weak link is Rebecca de Pont Davies’s vocal performance as Frederic’s nursery maid Ruth although she acts the role well.
The opera’s other popular highlight, “The Policeman’s Song” is wonderfully performed and New Zealand born Samoan bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu makes an endearing Sergeant of Police.
Pirates is to be broadcast live to more than 400 cinemas in the Britain and Ireland on May 19. The ENO said that based on advance sales it looked set to be the highest grossing cinema broadcast of opera in Britain to date.
The ENO has produced the opera jointly with Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Germany’s Saarlandische Straatstheater Saarbrucken.
(Nigel Hunt is a Senior Correspondent for Reuters. The views expressed are his own.)
Editing by Michael Roddy and Alan Crosby