“The Pirates of Penzance” was the fourth collaboration of the great partners, coming in 1880 after the enormous success of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the moderate success of “The Sorcerer “and “Trial by jury,” and the failure of their first venture, “Thespis.” It was first produced in the United States, where D’Oyley Carte had a company touring to prevent “pirated,” and often inaccurate, versions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas finding a golden market. Sullivan was still enjoying his talent for light music, and the obligations of his success in this field had not yet begun to make him feel he was neglecting his duty to serious music. “Hail Poetry!” however, at the end of Act I. of the “Pirates” is evidence that the oratorio style was never far below the surface; one can listen to it with enjoyment in the satirical context of the light opera, but a whole evening with it would be a penance.
For the School to aspire successfully to put on any one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, three problems had to be solved at the outset: how to overcome the restrictions of a small stage, how to make effective use of voices which, while they would be sweet, would be small, and how to make us forget the absence of Sullivan’s orchestral colour.
I was glad myself that a small and possibly inexperienced orchestra was not used ; it would have increased the difficulties for the singers and could not have revealed to us all the skill and humour of the original orchestration. The pianist, Muriel Thomas, was completely successful, and where she got a chance of holding equal place with the singers, as in General Stanley’s “Softly Sighing” (Act II.) it was with real delight that we heard her take advantage of the opportunity. I thought the orchestral overture on the gramophone a mistake: it is only with utmost difficulty that a theatre audience can be brought to listen to music when the curtain is down; there was no chance at all, with an excited audience in a school hall. I should have preferred it on two pianos with, if necessary, an enforced silence.
Problems of staging and of immature voices were solved to a large extent by the extended “apron” stage, which brought the principal singers out into the audience and gave their voices every chance to be heard. The device was completely successful, and the words of almost every song, even the choruses, were easily and clearly distinguished. I remember the girls and the policemen in “Go, Ye Heroes” (Act II.) as the best example of part singing on Saturday evening, while the trio, “A Paradox, A Paradox,” was sung with a confidence and a brilliance almost professional.
It was a pleasant departure from the usual to see General Stanley’s daughters all looking young and charming: it is not often that there is really “not one whose homely face or bad complexion “makes the protestations of perfection to Frederic invalid. But I could not help wondering how the energetic Major General produced so many beautiful daughters in less than three or four years. Was he perhaps a Mohammedan, or Mormon?
I would remind these maidens of the chorus of the need to act as well as sing and look beautiful; “How beautifully blue the sky” should be their pretext for concealing their obvious interest in the doings and conversation of Mabel and Frederic, and when they are silent the young ladies should be striving to get as near as possible in order to hear and see as much of the lovers as they can. They lost a chance of adding to the comedy there.
By the Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast the stage “business” is jealously watched to see that the traditions of seventy years’ standing are faithfully observed. Gilbert himself -,was rigidly set against allowing liberties with either his script or his stage directions. What he would have said could he have heard a portion of “H.M.S. Pinafore” inserted bodily into the text of the Pirates,” I hate to think; yet if my horrified ears heard aright this was done on one night at any rate of the performance. [The horrified ears were misled; the “What never? Hardly ever” of “Pinafore” was repeated by Gilbert in the original edition of “Pirates” as “What, all of them? Well, nearly all” Ed.] Far more legitimate and extremely attractive were the girls’ dances in both acts of the opera and the vigorous hornpipe of the pirates, while the drill of the policemen on their first entry reached a perfection and precision contrasting strangely with the imbecile countenances assumed by this talented Force. These gentlemen and their Sergeant are to be congratulated on extracting every possible nuance of expression from their words and music.
I suppose the role of Mabel, the heroine, is as exacting as any in the repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Her two main arias, “Poor Wandering One” and “Ah, leave me not to pine,” are both difficult to sing, and the coloratura of the first song is a fiendish test for a young and inexperienced voice. Small wonder, then, that Mabel became somewhat fixed and glassy in her concentration on getting every note. “Ah, leave me not to pine” came out sweet and pure as a bell: while it vas interesting to see how when “Poor Wandering One” is repeated at the end of the opera, Judith Crossley, now having seen all obstacles successfully surmounted, carolled forth with a freedom and confidence she did not dare to have in Act I.
Someone must be blamed, however, for the omission of “Oh, here is love and here is truth,” perhaps the producer was unable to work his leading lady into a sufficient frenzy of rapture. I think Frederic could have done it, but a love duet is not easy to make convincing when the young lady is still young enough to be self-conscious. Ruth, the piratical maid of all, work, is Gilbert’s first example of the ageing spinster. The tragedy of the loving but unloved female regretfully finding herself on the shelf was something that Gilbert never ceased to find funny, and later on in “Patience,” for example, and still more in the “Mikado,” this unfeeling humour of the librettist provoked Sullivan to give some of his finest music to the character at whom Gilbert sought to poke fun. In “The Pirates,” Ruth is cruelly treated when in Act I. she is exchanged from Pirate King to Frederic, back again and back once more.
We laugh uneasily there. In Act II. Ruth’s loss of Frederic is lost in the development of the plot around General Stanley. Marjorie Wilson’s singing was not powerful, but it was sweet and beautifully clear: I never missed a single word. But why was she allowed to look so young: I was never convinced of her forty-seven years, and when she re-appeared with the Pirate King in the ruined chapel of General Stanley’s home she looked in her smart tricorne and cloak as attractive a young woman as even the exacting Frederic could desire. Frederic himself looked a true hero and sang like one. One wondered how far General Stanley’s daughters needed to assume their admiration in “How pitiful his tale, how rare his beauty.” But he should have had a second costume for Act II. It was surely not seemly for one in pirate dress himself to propose to lead the police against the piratical stronghold. Philip Bell, as the Pirate King, was a tremendous spectacle.
What an asset to be able to roll one’s eyes and show the whites like that! His facial expressions were so varied one was apt to forget that he was contributing a fine voice to the part. I liked also his aide, Samuel, who showed a real appreciation of the timing as well as the quality of his lines.
Major General Stanley achieved a poise and an assurance that I have not seen excelled by Martyn Green himself. I certainly don’t believe I have ever heard “A Model Major General” done better. “Softly Sighing” demands somewhat greater musical accomplishment, and found out his limitations as a singer. But the late Sir Henry Lytton had no voice at all, and I felt William Hall was worthily in the tradition of Grossmith, Lytton and Greene-and as a Gilbert and Sullivan devotee I can give no greater praise than this.
Margaret Bowness, of the School, produced the scenery, and the delicious little view through the window of the ruined chapel was refreshing and effective, for that scene is often rather gloomy and circumscribed. The view of the headland in the School version was extraordinary effective. I have yet though, to find a scenic artist who will pay attention to the evidence that is provided not only in the stage directions about the first scene but in the script, “We are quite alone and the sea is as smooth as glass.” Only once have I seen a sea which was really calm-and in that case the tide was out, although we have elsewhere (Pirate King: “Well, it’s the top of the tide and we must be off”) evidence that it was not. Margaret Bowness’s waves were true to tradition.
The Stage Group, under the able direction of Stanley Jones, must have put in an enormous amount of work in the construction of scenery, and in making additions to the lighting set. They are to be congratulated on all the work they did behind the scenes.
But when all has been said of the caste, much of the praise distributed to them rightly belongs, as they know, to producer and musical director. The use of thirty-four people on that stage was a tribute to Blakey Dunn’s ;skill; so, surely, was the way in which the value of each word of the dialogue was given its importance. Only the rather bewildering alternation of night with day in Act II. seemed unnecessarily disturbing; I think it would have been better to have plumped for moonlight and relied on that for the illumination throughout.
Bernard Porter had his singers well in hand. He was lucky in being able to start in a school with an established tradition and enthusiasm for fine singing, but he has developed it in a way that has made musical history and a new and most promising departure for Ayton. The fruits of Mrs. Harper’s work were also evident. Without the foundation of her training, young soloists could not have tackled these difficult parts with so much success.
What a perfect vehicle for singing and drama the Gilbert and Sullivan operas provide. There is no other work in English of this quality. “We found the musical piece in the theatre poor, vulgar and mean to a degree and have sought to provide in its place pieces which are well constructed as to plot, witty, and in good taste, with music of the highest class.” That was what Gilbert said the great partnership set out to achieve, and worthily they did so. I hope “The Pirates” is the first of a Savoyard tradition at Ayton. May they never stray into the banalities of sugar and sentiment provided by other composers and librettists.
Stanley F. Sweet (Parent)