Film Posts 15: ENO Live: The Pirates of Penzance

I’m not an opera fan, not even particularly a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan (though they wrote some very good tunes and very witty lyrics). But I wanted to give this one a go. It was directed by the great film director Mike Leigh, though I haven’t seen enough opera or G&S to be able to identify what he brought to the production.

The cast was likeable: the Pirate King was suitably piratical; Ruth, the Maid-of-all-work, was tragic; General Stanley was exactly as he should be: one might say… he was the very model of a modern Major-General. Eh? Eh? See what I did there? Oh, please yourselves.

Robert Murray was fine as the hapless (former) apprentice pirate Frederic, though he wasn’t really going to pass for twenty-one; for much of the production he reminded me of Private Duane Doberman from “Sgt Bilko”   – childlike and lost in wonder at the new world into which he is thrown. Claudia Boyle was excellent as Mabel, particularly in the coquettish and feather-light presentation of “Poor Wandering One”. And the production drew smiles and laughs throughout – the stomping, thundering “With Cat-Like Tread” (a song extolling the virtues of stealth when committing burglary, sung with lusty abandon by the pirate chorus) was my highlight.

There was a worrying technical hitch near the start, as the live picture feed froze while the sound carried on. When the pictures started to flow again, they were now several seconds behind the sound, which was very unsettling, though gradually they came back into sync and everything was fine from then on.

And what about subtitles? Gilbert & Sullivan is quintessentially English. It’s written and sung in English. By an English cast. In a production by the English National Opera. So why did it need subtitles? Quite simply, because when you’ve got a chorus of 10-15 singers, even if they’re all singing the same words, it’s impossible to make out the words clearly. And WS Gilbert’s words are too rich and full of humour to miss any. Though we could have done without the subtitles during the spoken sections, which was distracting.

The downside of subtitles for me – an almost irresistible temptation to sing along. I had to remind myself this wasn’t “Singalong Sound of Music”, or G&S Karaoke. But I did let myself go in the car on the way home.

All in all, a lot of fun.

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