Entertainment & Arts

Mike Leigh's opera debut with Pirates of Penzance gets mixed reception

Pirates of Penzance poster Image copyright English National Opera
Image caption The Pirates of Penzance had its first night at the Coliseum in London on Saturday

Mike Leigh's first stab at directing opera has received qualified praise from the critics, with one calling the production "a jolly good show".

His staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, wrote the Telegraph's reviewer, is "directed and performed with meticulous care".

Rupert Christiansen, though, doubted it would prove "a perennial crowd-puller".

The Guardian's critic also expressed reservations, saying there is "no major reassessment, no real surprises".

"While [Leigh's] debut certainly isn't a disaster, it's not an outstanding, insightful success either," wrote Andrew Clements.

"There's nothing radical about the way in which any of the characters is conceived [and] the dancing [is] a bit on the homespun side."

Leigh explored Gilbert and Sullivan's creative partnership in his 1999 film Topsy Turvy but has never directed opera on stage before.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Leigh's most recent film was a biopic of English artist JMW Turner

First staged in 1879, The Pirates of Penzance tells of a pirate apprentice and his love for Mabel, the daughter of a high-ranking officer.

The latter character sings the comic opera's best-known tune, a 'patter song' that begins with "I am the very model of a modern Major-General".

According to Christiansen, Leigh "has played it straight" with a "traditionally interpreted" and "crisply-paced" production for the English National Opera (ENO).

In Clements' view, though, "the whole evening often seems more like an exercise in affectionate nostalgia".

Mark Valencia gave a harsher verdict on the WhatsOnStage website, bemoaning the production's "stodginess" and "thudding lack of wit".

"Leigh, cinematic and theatrical iconoclast though he is, treats Pirates as a museum exhibit," the critic went on "You can practically see the kid gloves.

"He loves G[ilbert] & S[ullivan] to bits... but on the stage he dares nothing, and it's a bore."

The Pirates of Penzance runs at the Coliseum in London until 4 July and will be screened live in cinemas on 19 May.

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