Procrastinated Reviews: Scottish Opera "The Pirates of Penzance" Edinburgh Festival Theatre 28 May 2013
Over the years I have seen plenty of professional productions of G&S, most notably perhaps The Yeomen of the Guard in the moat of the Tower of London, with Tommy Steele as Jack Point. I saw several D'Oyly Carte productions at Sadler Wells when I lived in London, including Mikado and Iolanthe. But the D'Oyly Carte company is no more, and (perhaps because of the vast number of often excellent amateur productions out there) very few professional opera companies do G&S any more. So it was a rare treat to see Scottish Opera doing Pirates. It's far from being my favourite of the Savoy Operas, but it is full of wit and does have some cracking music. I may find A Policeman's Lot resistible, but A Modern Major-General is a classic, and Poor Wand'ring One is Sullivan on top form, really showing off his leading lady (in this case Stephanie Corley).
The programme notes were especially interesting, pointing out that at the time it was written Gilbert & Sullivan were engaged in a battle with real (copyright) pirates in the USA. These people were doing nothing illegal, but took advantages of huge loopholes in the copyright law of the time to put on productions form which the creators abtained not a cent. G&S went to considerable lengths to try to avoid such issues with their appropriately-titled new piece, going so far as to have Sullivan relocate to New York to complete the scoring. Sadly their efforts came to naught, as the Americans simply found new loopholes and smarter lawyers.
So what was the difference between a professional and an amateur production? Money, is the answer. Professional singers can do more justice to Sullivan's score and Gilbert's lyrics (Richard Stuart was a splendid Major-General, Rosie Aldridge was marvellous as Ruth, and Nicholas Sharratt shone as Frederic), but the real difference is in the quality of the production. Professional quality sets, slick changes, and all the stage business handled with the smoothness of a West End musical. The pirates themselves were simply funnier than usual.
I can only hope, not just that Scottish Opera will do more G&S but that other opera companies will follow their lead. Gilber and Sullivan are national treasures, people: while it's fabulous that ordinary people put on their works, can we not put just a little more of the national arts spend into supporting professional performances of the Savoy Operas? After all, while funding a Parsifal or a Peter Grimes may seem like money spent for a small elite, it's hard to take that view of an HMS Pinafore, or a Gondoliers.
Please, opera companies and arts funding bodies: we want some more.