Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pirates of Penzance (2015, Mike Leigh)

And he's hardly ever sick at seaaaaa!

Ha! Fooled you, that's not a line from Pirates of Penzance but H.M.S. Pinafore, which we all know, of course, from Sideshow Bob singing it in the classic 5th Season "The Simpson's" episode, "Cape Feare". Or, you know, from some other source, if you're the sort of person who's into 19th century light opera. (Maybe "The Brady Bunch". Weren't Carol and Mike Gilbert and Sullivan fans?)

Welp. My music education had a lot of heavy opera in it but no light opera, so this was my first crack at G&S, which is also director Mike Leigh's (Vera Drake, Mr. Turner and, significantly, Topsy-Turvy) first crack at it, if I'm not mistaken.

There's a lot good here: The source material, for example. Being 19th century, a lot of its cleverness is hard to pick up on. Rhyming, e.g., "strategy" with "sat a gee" (meaning "rode a horse", apparently) is the sort of thing you're not likely to pick up and understand just from hearing it. (Seriously, check out all the footnotes in the Wiki article.)

That's from the Major General's classic song, sung by Andrew Shore who sounded like he was struggling with it, honestly. I may be misinterpreting that, since the song is supposed to sound a bit like he's struggling for rhymes. He sails through the rest of the opera masterfully, though. (Other reviews praise his performance, so I may be wrong. You can hear it here.)

The talent is top notch, which I guess shouldn't be a surprise, given it's the English National Opera. It's not unkind to say that the singing and playing were better than the recent show in L.A., but fair to note that this wasn't a one-off (i.e., this English crew played a number of shows and have possibly done the material before). At the same time, live music is much different (and better) as an experience, especially live unamplified music.

I particularly liked Rebecca de Pont Davies as the closest thing this good-natured show has to a heel: The conniving 47-year-old Ruth, who attempts to use the poor 21-year-old Frederic's sense of duty to trap him into marriage, and later to force him back into the pirate crew. Somehow Davies manages to do the whole thing bug-eyed.

But, really, they're all good. My only complaint is the same one I had at the L.A. opera, namely that operatic singing makes it hard to understand what's going on, and it's sometimes just too much for me. I concede that I would probably like the (horrors!) Papp version with Linda Rondstadt and Kevin Kline.

The sets are very spare. Abstract, mostly, even as the costumes are very traditional. I had no problem with that. I also didn't have any problem with Leigh's direction, either in terms of how it was staged or in how it was presented filmed. In terms of the former, it was simple and straightforward, without a lot of elaborate dance numbers, e.g., or fancy flourishes.

In terms of the latter, I absolutely hate when the camera guy swooshes and swoops and does extreme close-ups for a performance meant to be seen on stage. You can't tell what's going on, and you have no idea what the live audience is meant to be seeing, and they're the ones the production was largely made for.

So, overall, a good time. And the material definitely stays with you long afterwards.

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