GILBERT & SULLIVAN: The Pirates of Penzance; or, The
Slave to Duty.
Sullivan selections from Edison cylinders (1899-1914).
George Baker (Major-General Stanley); James Milligan (Pirate King); John
Cameron (Samuel); Richard Lewis (Frederic); Owen Brannigan (Sergeant of
Police); Elsie Morison (Mabel); Heather Harper (Edith); Marjorie Thomas
(Kate); Monica Sinclair (Ruth); Harry Dearth; Louise Kirkby Lunn; Edison
Light Opera Company; British Military Band; London Regimental Band; National
Military Band; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra/Sir Malcolm
Pristine Audio PACO 081 TT: 110:19.
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I'm in heaven. The popularity and influence of the Gilbert & Sullivan
operettas have waned a bit since roughly 1960. At its height, people claimed
that not a day went by without somebody putting on The Mikado. Gilbert
influenced many major American lyricists from Gershwin to Mercer. I got
stung by the love bug around the end of the period. However, popular music
turned another way. Literary sophistication became suspect as songwriters
strove to become "authentic." Although I know of no direct causal
connection, this new direction coincided with public education's abandonment
of the traditional literary canon. American students have very little comfort
or even familiarity with writers like Melville, Dickens, Carroll, and Tennyson.
Gilbert's satires might as well be Martial's epigrams.
Nevertheless, recording companies haven't yet given up all interest,
since they release new G&S CDs every few years or so. G&S fans disagree
over the relative merits of the operetta recordings. Many purists insist
on the Decca series performed by Gilbert & Sullivan's own company,
D'Oyly Carte, usually conducted by Isidore Godfrey. Others favor Sir Malcolm
Sargent's series for both EMI and (confusingly) Decca which sometimes skipped
the D'Oyly Carte performers for the best concert singers in Britain. I
come down firmly on the side of the impurists. The D'Oyly Carte productions
and performers often seemed to me to phone it in, with embarrassingly amateurish
comedy. This was even true in their home theater, the Savoy, at least in
the Seventies when I saw them. The joie had gone from their vivre. The
end of the company in 1982 didn't surprise me. Two attempts to restore
the company haven't gotten much of anywhere so far.
Others have praised Sargent's Sullivan recordings as the most musical,
a judgment with which I quite agree, especially in Pirates. The orchestral
accompaniments are as crisp as fresh matzo. Sargent also sees the point
of Sullivan's musical jokes, most especially in the Verdi send-up in
the finale of Act I. The choral diction could improve; after all, Gilbert's
words give satiric point to Sullivan's melodies, which otherwise might
degenerate into the merely pretty. Nevertheless, the Glyndebourne's diction
surpasses most large choruses, and their spirit and choral tone carry
The Victorians tended to view Gilbert in the tradition of nonsense -- "topsy-turvydom" as
the Mike Leigh movie has it. However, Gilbert didn't turn things upside-down
as much as he magnified social virtues to an unworkable point. George Bernard
Shaw praised Gilbert as a penetrating social critic; only Ibsen, in his
opinion, went deeper. Most of the G&S operettas show the influence
of Victorian attitudes at their extremes. Usually, the main character --
the character who sets the action in motion -- is an idiot who becomes
fanatically devoted to some ideal. In Pirates, Frederic embraces Duty above
all. He begins as an "apprentice" pirate released from his article
of indentures. One wonders how much actual piracy the pirates have done.
Orphans themselves, they release those who tell them that they are orphans,
and the word has gotten around. Frederic remarks that one would think the
entire British Navy was manned only by orphans. Frederic has hated the
pirate life but stuck to it because he must do his duty according to contracted
agreement. Once the indentures no longer have force, he leaves the crew
to seek his way in the world. He comes across the daughters of Major-General
Stanley and falls in love with one of them, Mabel. The pirates capture
the party, but the Major-General pleads (falsely) that he is an orphan,
and the pirates withdraw.
The Pirate King and Ruth (the woman who originally indentured Frederic
-- don't ask) get Frederic alone to tell him that he's still part of
their band. His articles specify his release on his 21st birthday, not
year. Since Frederic was born in a leap year on February 29th, he belongs
to the pirates until 1940. As a pirate, he must now confess that the
Major-General lied about his orphanhood and lead the pirate's terrible
the Stanleys. It all works out, of course, through Gilbert's keen sense
of social and dramatic absurdity.
The soloists stand out. In addition to possessing idiosyncratic and beautiful
voices, every one of them can act while they sing. Neither Gilbert nor
Sullivan (at most, rarely) plumb psychological depths. The G&S operettas
resemble marionette theater. The characters are all types, of course, but
types particular to Gilbert -- types as old as Plautus (the brainless,
impetuous hero; the brainless but beautiful ingénue; the foolish
old man; the ugly and sexually predatory spinster) -- each adapted not
only to contemporary attitudes but to Gilbert's take on the power of cultural
norms. Each of the chief actors are (you should pardon the expression)
pitch perfect. Elsie Morison tosses off Il Trovatore runs in "Poor
wand'ring one" as if no big deal and actually manages genuine sadness
in the duet "Ah, leave me not to pine." Richard Lewis has the
voice of a trumpet, but he matches Morison tender phrase for tender phrase
in the aforementioned duet. George Baker as Major-General Stanley delivers
his words not merely with crisp precision but with the hint of entitlement
that tempted the M-G to lie in the first place. My favorite, however, is
bass Owen Brannigan, whose voice has a mirthful bubble in it. Not everything
he sings is funny, but he always seems to promise that good things will
come to you if you wait just a little longer. It's like keeping your eye
on a great clown (Jim Carrey, for example). Somewhere, sometime, somehow
he will convulse you. His defeat of the pirates I rank as the comic gem
of the album.
The only thing the EMI production lacks is Gilbert's spoken dialogue.
For that, you can try Godfrey's recording. On the other hand, it's not
to find the libretto on Google. I actually own both, but I find myself
listening to Sargent more. The music moves with more élan, and the
voices and vocal acting leaves the Savoyards in the dust.
Pristine gives us bonuses of early cylinder recordings of Sullivan --
mostly from the G&S operettas, but also from The Rose of Persia as well as
a setting of Shakespeare's "Willow Song." Pristine's technical
magic results in a clarity that gobsmacked me. However, you can't escape
the realization that performance standards have skyrocketed since the end
of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth. The instrumentals
lurch and stutter. I've heard high-school bands play better. The singers
sing stiffly, with accents somewhere around educated, upper-class Irish.
Most of them belong to the "Edison Light Opera Company," so I
have no idea whether they are British or American.
Producer Andrew Rose has also applied his rejuvenating techniques to
the EMI recording. I admit I don't have golden ears. I found only a slight
gain in clarity, but a major gain in ambience. The recorded space seems
fuller. In all, a marvelous re-release of a classic recording.
S.G.S. (June 2014)