There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Scottish Opera announced that one of its meagre tally of four mainstage productions this season was to be a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Didn’t Scotland’s national opera company have better things to offer its public? For armchair critics it is easy to be patronising. Given its lack of cash, Scottish Opera’s remit is to put bums on seats – to earn as much as possible and spend as little as possible. On that score, a Pirates of Penzance, co-produced by the D’Oyly Carte Company and involving an extensive tour of English cities, makes sense. The Glasgow performances are virtually sold out – more than can be said for some of Scottish Opera’s standard fare.
Opera connoisseurs may baulk at the prospect of G&S, and it’s true, the Victorian humour and musical formulas can wear thin. But even musical snobs need an occasional reminder that some of the greatest British singers have done their bit for G&S – and when Sullivan’s melodic muse rises above the dross of Gilbert’s rhymes, as in the Mabel-Frederic duet “Oh, here is love, and here is truth”, you understand why. Sung here by Stephanie Corley and Nicholas Sharratt, it reminded me of the children’s prayer in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, composed 13 years later, not least because it has the same touching sincerity.
The tone of this performance banishes memories of the old D’Oyly Carte by virtue of its musical discipline and fresh, serviceable sets. There is no crass updating or vulgar humour in Martin Lloyd-Evans’ staging, designed by Jamie Vartan, but neither is it tired tradition. As with the accents, ranging from Scottish and “northern” to posh and “mumerset”, the show seems designed to appeal to the widest possible constituency.
Derek Clark, conducting the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, demonstrates that G&S – like Offenbach – profits from a sense of musical style. The accompaniments come across as suave rather than trite, and the women’s choruses positively glisten. The indefatigable Richard Suart is still at the top of his game in the Major-General’s patter, outshining Steven Page’s Pirate King and Graeme Broadbent’s Sergeant of Police.