The Pirates (D’Oyly Carte Season, Sadler’s Wells)
New Statesman, July 1977
I unavoidably missed the premiere of Sir Michael Tippett's new and much-eulogised opera. By next week, though, I shall have seen and heard The Ice Break – again inevitably, with all that hot air in circulation. Meanwhile I settled for the indisputable masterpieces now showing at Sadler's Wells. Alas, they are not showing to full advantage, in my view. Personally I look askance at the bluff no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon attitude to Sullivan (perhaps derived from Sir Malcolm Sargent, whose highspeed drill often seemed to me to achieve more polish than penetration). No composer was ever less English, whether in genes or genius. By temperament and training he was a master of the Leipzig school; and his basic tempi should surely be restrained, like those of Schumann, or even Wagner. Tempo rubato seems especially apt for the Pirates, which began the season. But Royston Nash's direction often sounded far too brisk for the singers' comfort, not to mention mine. That impression was exacerbated by his tendency to inflexibility. If not exactly a lightning conductor, he did at times appear to have a rod of iron, which could transform the brilliant (well played, that piccolo) into the flashy. Worse still, Gilbert’s scansion was swept off its metric feet. I found myself unable to pick up words that I've known by heart for years. What really is the sense of G. or S. when taken too fast for the text to be fully comprehensible, even when carefully articulated by skilled professionals?
Articulation is vital, because the book is the spine of each Savoy opera. No wonder Gilbert was so obsessed with structures, hierarchies, disciplines of all kinds. His lines embody law and order, government, the family, duty and responsibility, the ineluctable cycles of age and the seasons; these are the solid foundations on which his world is carefully knocked down. Over and around these strongly-marked and rather sour-looking features the music plays like a sweet smile. Force it, and you get the grinning rictus of ill-fitting dentures.
In Act II the expression softened somewhat, and even grew ingratiating. More relaxation gave the principals time to show their paces. Michael Rayner, as the Sergeant of Police, never put a foot wrong, least of all when pretending to fall over. He is not only an accomplished singer but a gifted mime in the Dan Leno tradition. James Conroy-Ward as the Major-General timed his attack well; Meston Reid as Frederick made the most of that unloving and indeed ruthless hero; Julia Goss sang Mabel with a saucy ebullience that added some nice touches of coloratura to her girlish cheek. The chorus of nubile daughters made a picture almost as pretty as Sullivan's. typical musical imagery of frilled bonnets with the wind playing among the strings. His happy ladies' entries testify as clearly as diary entries to the wooing tenderness of his technique.
Let's hear that in the music, whatever the tempo, and the season's success is assured. On the first night, the audience, though politely enthusiastic, was soon ready for that admirable facility, the private bus to the West End and mainline stations (“sweet to ride forth at evening from the Wells”, as the poet presciently sang). No doubt it was just coincidence, but the conductor was also a driver.