This was bound to happen. Mike Leigh’s original ENO production of The Pirates of Penzance played to over 90,000 people on stage and screen when it premiered in 2015, not to mention audiences on BBC Radio 3 and Sky Arts. Its revival was, therefore, an inevitability, and it returns to the Coliseum’s stage for a limited but bristling and hugely-anticipated run.
For the uninitiated, one might question that it is, in fact, the Mike Leigh at the helm. The British auteur known as much for his grizzliness as the gritty, bittersweet dramas he puts on screen is, here, indulging in the jocularity of Gilbert & Sullivan. Lest we forget though, tucked into the director’s oeuvre of cinema verite sits the delightfully comic Topsy Turvy, his homage to the D’Oyly Carte duo. That, too, was no passing whim, for Leigh is also President of both Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s respective societies, don’t you know.
It’s in safe hands, then.
Leigh’s characteristic need for the uncomplicated comes across in the simplistic set; the moving backdrop (from Olivier-winning designer, Alison Chitty) offers geometric forms, serving as a canny lens to focus the action every so often – and the odd visual gag with the chorus – and highlights what are inspired and superlative performances.
Harewood Artists (the ENO’s apprenticeship) and other rising talent take centre stage here; David Webb leads as Frederic and Ashley Riches, who only debut’d at the ENO last season, takes on the Pirate King. Both as comfortable on stage as veterans Sir John Tomlinson and ENO favourite Andrew Shore, giving a respectable crack at Gilbert’s tongue twisting wordsmithery as the Very Model of a Modern Major General. But it’s Soraya Mafi as Mabel who stands out, with a tone like cut crystal and a coloratura you could hang on a wall, it’s little wonder she’s won every award going.
More so that for all of G&S’s perceived mass appeal, where many themes and melodies of Sullivan’s score are somewhat formulaic – it’s a damn catchy formula – these performances, and the orchestration and harmonies from the chorus, here lift this into the pantheon of fine opera.
But it’s the delightfully Python-esque absurdity of the libretto that makes this so perennially appealing; the misfortune of a leap year birthday, the semantics of ‘orphan’ and ‘often’, a timid, Keystone-like police force, not to mention the entire premise of a nanny who’s hard of hearing apprenticing her charge to a pirate, rather than a pilot.
Above all, it’s fun. Jolly, jocular, foot-tapping fun. Opera seldom raises a genuine laugh, but here is popular entertainment made high art, delivered by a master and performed to its absolute heights.
What utter, unfettered, unparalleled joy.
The Pirates of Penzance runs for 16 performances at the ENO, until Saturday 4th March 2017. For more information and the full schedule, and to book tickets, visit www.eno.org.