A paradox, confound it. Mike Leigh's much-anticipated staging for English National Opera of The Pirates of Penzance, probably the freshest and most pliable of Gilbert & Sullivan's Savoy operas to modern ears, is set to serve one audience but starve another.
Sullivan's effervescent score is delivered by the ENO Orchestra with the refinement it reserves for a masterpiece – which, of course, this is. In the overture alone David Parry, one of the UK's most scandalously undervalued conductors, finds a fleck of emphasis here, a line of nuance there, that sets the tone for an evening of plush, upholstered delight.
ENO has furnished the production with an exemplary cast led by tenor Robert Murray as Frederic, the slave of duty, and a glowing, vocally stratospheric house debut from Irish soprano Claudia Boyle as his beloved Mabel. Joshua Bloom's Captain-Hookishly handsome Pirate King booms like a musical Brian Blessed and Rebecca de Pont Davies boils the bunny as an ageing Ruth complete with ear trumpet (well, she did mishear ‘pilot' as ‘pirate' a few years back).
While G&S purists will be in clover, a wider audience may be nettled by the stodginess of a production whose thudding lack of wit recalls the dying days of D'Oyly Carte Opera. Alison Chitty's sleekly modish nursery designs cannot disguise the fact that Leigh, cinematic and theatrical iconoclast though he is, treats Pirates as a museum exhibit. You can practically see the kid gloves. He loves G&S to bits – a professorial programme note testifies to that, as does his sublime biopic Topsy-Turvy – but on the stage he dares nothing, and it's a bore.
'Thank goodness for Andrew Shore'
Ever since Kevin Kline cut a dash in Joseph Papp's 1980 Broadway version (a watershed production directed by Wilford Leach), directors have felt free to have fun with Pirates. Sasha Regan's irresistible all-male Union Theatre production, now on tour, is just the latest in a long line of mirth-filled stagings. So what are we to make of a production where the cops merely huddle round the Sergeant of Police (Jonathan Lemalu) as he leads them in song? Francesca Jaynes is credited as choreographer; was she sidelined? Exasperatingly, the first-night audience laughed throughout this sequence – but in time with the superfluous surtitles, not the action.
Thank goodness for Andrew Shore, who raises the spirits and the temperature with his every appearance as Major-General Stanley. He has a ball as the dotty old buffer and so do we.
ENO's production will be seen by huge audiences, and good luck to them. The company needs and deserves the revenue. Two extra performances have been slotted in to accommodate demand, and the ENO Screen relay on 19 May is sure to pack 'em into cinemas across the UK and beyond. What it will do for Gilbert & Sullivan is another matter.