The trend of screening live performances of operas and ballets in cinemas has opened up a whole new world of enjoyment and appreciation of these art forms for audiences around the world, and English National Opera’s ENO Screen programme has a nicely balanced selection of performances already in its repertoire.
During the 2013-14 season, Britten’s Peter Grimes and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini were screened, and Verdi’s La Traviata has already featured in the 2014-15 season. On 19th May, the Company’s current production of The Pirates of Penzance becomes the latest opera to be transmitted live from the stage of the London Coliseum to cinema screens across the UK and Ireland, and to selected venues internationally.
The Pirates of Penzance – book by W S Gilbert, and music and lyrics b Arthur Sullivan – was the fifth opera which emerged from the less than harmonious working relationship shared by this theatrical partnership. “Combative” is the word used by biographer Michael Ainger in his book Gilbert and Sullivan – A Dual Biography, and he even goes so far as to suggest that this personality clash might have been the catalyst for the success of their operas – the result of each partner challenging the other to produce his best work.
The opera was first produced in what has been described as a “perfunctory” performance at the Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon, on 30th December 1879, the afternoon before its New York premiere – the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have officially premiered in the United States. The close proximity of the two performances was necessary to secure copyright in both countries. The somewhat informal first British performance was organised by Helen Lenoir, who in 1888 became the wife of Richard D’Oyly Carte, impresario, and producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas.
Mike Leigh, award-winning British playwright, film and stage director, makes his debut as an operatic director in ENO’s current production. He follows a number of other directors of ENO productions who come from a wide range of artistic disciplines – Terry Gilliam, Anthony Minghella, Benedict Andrews, Rufus Norris, Carrie Cracknell and Fiona Shaw – all of whom, says ENO, have brought “a fresh perspective and unique approach to our productions”.
Leigh’s successes include the stage plays Bleak Moments, Abigail’s Party, Ecstasy and more recently, Grief. Amongst his films are Naked – for which he won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director Award in 1993; the 1996 Palme d’Or winner Secrets & Lies; Vera Drake – winner of the Leone d’Oro for best film at the International Venice Film Festival in 2004; and Mr Turner, in which Timothy Spall played the role of the English Romanticist landscape painter. Mike Leigh also wrote and directed the 1999 BAFTA Award-winning film Topsy Turvy which explored the turbulent relationship between Gilbert and his librettist in the run-up to the premiere of The Mikado.
A lifelong Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, Mike Leigh is President of both the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and the W S Gilbert Society, and has contributed to The Cambridge Companion to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Pirates of Penzance opens on a rocky seashore on the Cornish coast where the pirates are holding a sherry party to celebrate the birthday of the apprentice Frederic, and his promotion to the status of pirate with his coming of age. The date is 29th February in the year 1897 which – being a leap year – causes all sorts of problems for Frederic’s legitimate claim to his 21st birthday. Having learned that he was apprenticed to the pirates in error, he had hoped to leave them for a life more morally acceptable, and the hand of Mabel, the daughter of the “very model of a modern Major-General” – Stanley – sung by baritone Andrew Shore.
Other members of the cast include tenor Robert Murray as Frederic, baritone Jonathan Lemalu as the Sergeant of Police, and mezzo-soprano Rebecca de Pont Davies as Ruth. Making their ENO debuts are bass Joshua Bloom as The Pirate King, soprano Claudia Boyle as Mabel, baritone Alexander Robin Baker as Samuel, soprano Soraya Mafi as Edith, mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon as Kate and soprano Lydia Marchione as Isabel.
Set design is by Olivier Award-winning designer Alison Chitty, lighting by Paul Pyant and choreography by Francesca Jaynes. David Parry – who conducted the most recent ENO revival of The Mikado – leads the English National Opera Orchestra in this co-production with Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and the Saarländische Staatstheater Saarbrücken.
To find your nearest cinema screening of The Pirates of Penzance in the UK on 19th May, follow this link.
These performances will be screened live where possible – but check with your local cinema for timings, particularly if you’re overseas, where time difference may impact on scheduling.
Visit the English National Opera website www.eno.org for details of the forthcoming screenings of Carmen and The Barber of Seville, and if you missed Peter Grimes and Benvenuto Cellini, selected cinemas will be screening encore performances of these operas, so keep an eye on local schedules.
English National Opera programme notes
Arthur Jacobs: A Victorian Musician – New York: Oxford University Press (1984)
John Russell Stephens: The Profession of the Playwright: British Theatre 1800–1900 – Cambridge University Press (1992)
Edward Samuels: International copyright pirating – accessed 25 July 2009
Michael Ainger: Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography – February 11, 2009