|All photos by Jeff Roffman|
So it was in the 1870s, when composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist William Schwenck Gilbert started collaborating on English-language comic operas, a cousin to sweetly sophisticated Parisian and Viennese operettas. The British duo had a commercial hit with the nautical-themed “HMS Pinafore” in 1878. But within months “Pinafore” was spreading across America through – ahem – pirated productions, earning the creators no income.
For their next collaboration, “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1879, they followed their familiar patterns by lampooning the police and the military, poking fun at empty patriotism and, above all, satirizing the stupidity of a literal devotion to duty. Our hero Frederic is “the slave of duty,” personifying the operetta’s subtitle. In Victorian England, with an Empire stretching around the globe, protected by the most powerful naval fleet that ever existed, “Pirates of Penzance” was social satire with a sharp edge. That Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s music does all this with such a light touch – tuneful, infinitely clever, unexpectedly warm – is the stuff of genius.
Early in their collaborations, Gilbert and Sullivan established a formal structure to their works: two acts, the first act concluding with a complicated finale in several sections and the second act reprising tunes heard earlier. Like other operettas, spoken dialogue (instead of operatic recitative) moves the action forward, although their best works, including “The Mikado,” have found a home in opera houses across the English-speaking world. Gilbert’s political iconoclasm matched perfectly with Sullivan’s gift for melody and his skills in orchestration, where he could parody music by a Handel, Donizetti or Verdi and twist it to his own comic needs. As with the best satire, the more you know the funnier it gets.
Key points of “The Pirates of Penzance” plot are so daffy that audiences can’t help but groan and giggle. And there’s no irony: all the characters are “naïve” to their world, with no winks from the stage at their increasingly ridiculous situations. For starters, the work’s title is funny: British audiences would have known Penzance as a mild and slightly boring beach town on the English Channel, the last place you’d expect to find blood-thirsty bandits of the high seas. The characters are introduced by a series of wacky missteps. The nursery maid Ruth had misheard “pirate” (instead of “pilot”) and had mistakenly apprenticed the boy Frederic to the Pirate King – as if one trained into piracy as into any other respectable trade. Gilbert’s lyrics emphasize the not-so-subtle difference in pronunciation with over-the-top rhymes: “my lot/pilot” and “gyrate/pirate.”
Now 21, bidding farewell to his masters, Frederic had accepted his duty (despite Ruth’s mistake) and reveals his literal mindset: “It was through an error – no matter, the mistake was ours, not yours, and I was in honor bound to it.” When we meet the pirate band, we soon learn they are uncommonly polite and empathetic, and word has spread that they will release all victims who claim to be orphans.
As in grand opera, the work thrives on its songs, and this is what makes “Pirates” among the greatest of any operetta in the language. Mabel’s coloratura showpiece, “Poor wand’ring one,” is set as a graceful, French-style waltz. In the ensemble number “How beautifully blue the sky,” Sullivan sets the love duet between Frederic and Mabel as a fresh, lilting waltz, dovetailing it into the chitter-chatter of the women’s chorus in 2/4 time. It’s as silly, tender and brilliant as anything in the G&S canon.
Perhaps the most famous number of the score is the Major-General’s charming, clueless patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” At top speed, he spits out ghastly rhymes with the high-falutin’ language of educated men – “mathematical/quadratical” and “a lot ‘o news/hypotenuse” – all delivered in a mock-pompous style. (As a comedy technique, it was adopted by generations of British satirists, including Monty Python in our own time.) The Major-General’s song in the second act, “Sighing softly to the river,” features a rippling watery accompaniment that wouldn’t be out of place in Schubert lieder. But the context is hilarious, with the men’s choruses mocking him unseen in the background, parodying a similar scene from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” As with almost every detail in “The Pirates of Penzance,” it’s easy to forget about the richness of invention because the lyrics-music fusion seems so effortless.