An Exciting “Pirates of Penzance” is Performed in Australia
After watching the mutilated “Gondoliers” as performed by Opera Australia, in which neither Gilbert’s lyrics nor dialogue was spared updating by those concerned, I was most reluctant to watch their 2007 “The Pirates of Penzance” on the Kultur label. So I played it safe and ordered it through Netflix…and I loved every moment of it! Now I have my own copy and will use it to play for friends and in my lectures.
For starters, it does not change any of the lyrics or dialogue, except for a few harmless ad libs. Although it is heavily influenced by the Joseph Papp rock version, the orchestration here is Sullivan’s. Costuming the Pirate King (Anthony Warlow) to closely resemble Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a joke that wears out quickly butalso does no harm. But he does adopt a body language that is often curiously effeminate, perhaps not intentionally.
John Bolton Wood’s Major-General Stanley first appears in kilts and gives his patter entrance song at a fast clip. Only at the very end of the opera does he appear in his proper uniform. David Hobson’s Frederic looks a little older than a 21 year old (or 5.25, if we go by birthdays!), but sings well and has a good sense of humor. His Mabel (Taryn Fiebig) gets a good deal of comedy into her “Poor wand’ring one” without making it silly.
I was delighted to see that the Police are costumed in accurate uniforms without any clownish additions and no rubber-leg dancing. Also Richard Alexander’s basso is just right for the Police Sergeant. Suzanne Johnston makes a sympathetic Ruth in Act I, looking really older than 47. But in Act II, in a pirate costume and lipstick, she looks sexy and 100% piratical.
The scenery is minimal, with such items as the pirate vessel, trees, and tombstones being wheeled on by the cast. It all works beautifully, at one point to the accompaniment of an orchestral vamp.
A short introduction is given instead of the overture. But the full finale, which Gilbert wrote for the New York opening, using a reprise of the Major-General song followed by “Poor wand’ring one,” makes a great ending. So kudos to stage director Stuart Maunder and conductor Andrew Greene for the best “Pirates” on video yet.
The running time is 112 minutes, the picture is widescreen format, but alas no subtitles.
The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Leading Ladies
W.S. Gilbert always had an eye for the pretty young ‘uns. Indeed he and wife Kitty legally adopted one of them who was the soprano lead in his “Utopia, Ltd.” after practically ruining his own scenario by adding extra songs for her. He repeated this error to an even greater degree when he did the same for a Hungarian beauty whom he cast in “The Grand Duke.” So like his fellow satirists, Wilde and Twain, he could be so perceptive in his writings and so reckless in real life. A victim, one might say, of his own topsy-turvydom.
We have the usual Victorian spotless maidens in some of the Savoy plays. Aline Sangazure in “The Sorcerer” is willing to stand up to her fiancé for only so long concerning his demand that she partake of the elixir even though she already loves him, but yields in the second act because the plot demands it. Josephine Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” is simply in love with a simple sailor lowly born, but she shows a little more intelligence than most of her Savoy sisters in realizing what life would be like living with him “in some back street.” Gilbert will never again lead us to such murky waters, except for a song in “Iolanthe” that was dropped very quickly.
Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” is as good as gold and accepts the ex-(he thinks)-pirate apprentice despite his background; but her sisters ask “had he not been / A thing of beauty, / Would she be swayed by quite as keen / A sense of duty?” On the other hand, she is willing to wait until 1940 when his 21st birthday finally comes around–and those are points in her favor.
Patience is also a Good Girl, but something of a dipsydoodle when it comes to ideas about love having to be entirely unselfish and she offers herself to a man she cannot abide as a “logical” consequence. And we must give Phyllis credit in “Iolanthe” for rejecting riches and remaining true to her swain–that is, until he insists that the pretty woman he was with, though younger than him, is actually his mother. But who can blame her for that?
Princess Ida, alas, is something of a well-educated moron, to whom it does not occur that posterity without men would be impossible. But at least she is true to her convictions, mistaken or not as they might be. In the next play, “The Mikado,” Yum-Yum can be played as an opportunist who has a chance to marry the heir to the crown; but again we must excuse her for retreating when she finds out that burial alive awaits her after a month. At any rate, she realizes “that I am more attractive than anybody else in the whole world,” and she will always find another.
Tessa and Gianetta share “lead” status in “The Gondoliers”; and like their Japanese predecessor they are not at all averse to becoming Queen of Barataria. They are understandably indignant when they learn that one of them is not really married to her gondolier—[you really have to go over the full plot yourself]—and are quite human about their plans for dealing with the third woman when the time comes. In “Utopia, Ltd.,” Zara already is a princess, but that does not stop her from making a very fatal error in her Anglicizing of her native land. Just what that is will have to wait for another installment in this series.
Now, lest you think that all of Gilbert’s leading ladies are Very Nice Little Women, consider Angelina (what a wonderful name) in “Trial by Jury.” The Breach of Promise suit was the only bit of power (other than the sexual one) that Victorian women were allowed; and if you recall the sequence in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” concerning such a lawsuit, you will realize how absurd it is to place a monetary value on “what love and caressing I’ve lost” by the altered affections of the Defendant. At the end, she certainly gets more riches than she bargained for…but at what a price!
Just a tad less greedy is sweet Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore,” whose life is ruled by a book of etiquette that is her constant companion and frame of reference. On the other hand, she will easily switch her engagement from young Robin to the British tar Richard because of the latter’s good looks (he is a tenor, you know) and back to Robin because of his “considerable dairy farm” and other assets.
Many have criticized Elsie Maynard in “The Yeomen of the Guard” for her callous treatment of Jack Point. Now this is the play with the “human interest” that Sullivan insisted on for their next collaboration after “Ruddigore” proved a disappointment. The leading tenor role, Fairfax, is almost on a moral plane with Pinkerton in the Puccini opera, while Elsie’s conduct concerning her engagement to Jack Point the jester might be defensible in light of how the latter has made light of whatever love he might have felt for her for all those years. Unlike the other high-born Savoy sopranos, she really needs the money that is offered her to make a mock marriage…. But read the script for yourself and consider. Sullivan wanted human beings and Gilbert gave them to him: warts and all.
And so much for the briefest of looks at the leading ladies.
The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Very Important People
The world of Gilbert & Sullivan is populated by characters (in both senses of the word) as sharply drawn and memorable as those in the world of Dickens. And among them, none are so memorable as the Very Important Persons whose complete inadequacy for the lofty positions they hold–not to mention the way in which they cheerfully admit it–makes us think of so many of our own life-imitates-art High and Mighties who run our lives to one extent or another.
The Learned Judge stands at the head of this breed. In “Trial by Jury,” he is about to preside over a breach of promise case, but first feels obliged to “tell you how I came to be a Judge.” Note, however, he owes it all to a breach of promise of his own, the victim being a woman who “may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with a light behind her.” Far out of his depth in so simple a case, especially when the Defendant wants to be made drunk to prove he would beat the Plaintiff were they wed, the Learned Judge lowers a deus ex machina by claiming, “I will marry her myself.” Well, even as I write these words, there is a storm brewing among some judges in Concord, NH concerning shady doings on the bench; and perhaps a few performances of “Trial By Jury” would be quite appropriate in Real Life just about now.
In “HMS Pinafore,” we have the immortal Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (see picture), with all of his sisters and his cousins and his aunts. Qualifying for the rank of First Lord of the Admiralty on the basis of polishing up the handle of the big front door and having a partnership as “the only ship that I had ever seen,” this social ladder climber is democratic enough to stoop to marry a mere Captain’s daughter but settles for one of his own cousins when it turns out that the Captain had been switched at birth and really is not one of the gentry. At least, as far as this play is concerned, he causes no naval damage before learning about the natal damage; and all ends happily according to the code of operetta.
Major-General Stanley in “The Pirates of Penzance” was at least born into the class that allowed him to achieve his rank but is as little fit for it as Sir Joseph was for his own. In the second great G&S patter song [the first being the one in “The Sorcerer”], he spends two stanzas of dizzying polysyllabic rhymes to tell us all the things he does know in mathematics, history, art, and literature, then spends the third admitting he has yet to learn anything of a military nature that is later than “the beginning of the century.” But again, like Sir Joseph, his troubles are domestic rather than national and no harm is done to the country at large.
The Major and his fellow officers in “Patience” seem very qualified for their ranks, as they explain very nicely in “The soldiers of our Queen” and the Heavy Dragoon patter song. In this play, pretentious poets are the targets of Gilbert’s satire; and more about them in another article.
It is interesting that in “Iolanthe,” Gilbert can do what he will with the House of Peers but is very cautious with the Lord Chancellor. In fact, the Lord’s first song reveals that his only problem with his High Office is that he is particularly susceptible to all the wards of his Court, none of whom “Are over the age of twenty-one,” to make things worse. Like Macbeth, he loses a lot of sleep, as he describes in the spectacular patter of the Nightmare Song, but it is over “love unrequited” and not running the country.
The House of Peers, on the other hand, is held up as an example of “They govern best who govern least.” England will do just fine, Gilbert has Lord Montararat sing, as long as “noble statesmen do not itch/To interfere with which/They do not understand.” [And as an ex-teacher, I can vouch for that sentiment having seen what political mandates on the running of schools has led to.]
And what do we do with Ko-Ko, the little tailor of Titipu, who has been elevated to the office of Lord High Executioner on the single stipulation that he “Cannot cut off an other’s head/Until he’s cut his own off”? When push comes to shove and the Mikado demands an execution, Ko-Ko admits he thought the duties were purely nominal when he accepted the post [did he really have a choice?] and that he is too tender-hearted to hurt even a fly.
No, it is Pooh-Bah who stands for all that is wrong with governments in general. Not only does he hold multiple offices–and the salaries attached to them, as Pish-Tush comments–but will pick up some extra cash by attending middle class functions and now and then “retail State secrets at a very low figure.” Although he terms any bribe “an insult,” he still complains when the insult is “a light one.”
The Duke of Plaza Toro in “The Gondoliers” has actually seen combat, as he candidly admits: “When he was in the army he led his regiment. He occasionally led them into action. He invariably led them out of it.” And he then sings a few stanzas, with strong echoes of Sir John Falstaff, to explain his cowardice in the most favorable terms.
In the second act, he lets us know he has turned himself into a company, registered as such under the Limited Liability Act. (In our terms, he is now a corporation.) And then he is given a long duet with his Duchess to explain how he makes extra cash by sponsoring tailors whose products would shock Robinson Crusoe, while she endorses soap products, and they both charge to attend and to speak at charity dinners for 10% of the takings.
But Gilbert is Gilbert and Gilbert was very human. As early as “Thespis,” his first collaboration with Sullivan, he launched his attack at the fact that “While noodles are baroned and earled, /There’s nothing for clever obscurity”; and he let up on his attacks on the titled only when Sullivan was knighted during the run of “Iolanthe.”
So these delightful little VIPs in Gilbertland, known to us through Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s lyrics, have become symbols for everything that is wrong with most governments whose non-fictional high officials are no less blatantly unfit for their high posts but who are far more dangerous than laughable. And some say that Gilbert & Sullivan is nonsense for children!