Gilbert and Sullivan pose challenge for Scottish Opera

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FOR any opera director used to making sense and substance out of the musical and theatrical complexities of Britten, Mozart, Verdi or Puccini, you’d think a stab at a dear old Gilbert and Sulllivan operetta, with frivolous comedy, saucy satire and sentimental tunes, would be like a walk in the park.

Absolutely not, says Martin Lloyd-Evans, a seasoned opera director whose new production of The Pirates of Penzance for Scottish Opera opens next week at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. “One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the fact that there is this huge image surrounding Gilbert and Sullivan: a tradition of famous historical productions and so many fine amateur productions,” he explains.

The only way to approach it, he adds, given the nature of the work – its satire of Victorian political and public life – is “to treat it as a newly written piece”. That’s what Lloyd-Evans told his cast right at the start of the rehearsal process. “The barnacles of habit of approach don’t do the piece any good at all”.

He’s absolutely right, of course. The secret to making Gilbert and Sullivan operettas work is to treat them in the spirit in which they were conceived. Sometimes that means leaving them exactly in the period they were written, such as Scottish Opera’s last venture into G&S – Keith Warner’s hilarious 1986 Iolanthe - which featured the late Rikki Fulton in vintage comedy mode.

But there are times, too, where an update in setting can add a much-needed edge to a genre that would, reckons Lloyd-Evans, “have been the Monty Python of its day”.

That’s exactly what Jonathan Miller did with his famous 1986 production of The Mikado for English National Opera, which is still going strong, and which shifts the quaint Victorian values of the mock-oriental Town of Titipu to a crazy Marx Brothers-style romp in a 1930s seaside hotel.

So what approach has Lloyd-Evans taken to bring us a memorable Pirates of Penzance – a farcical and unlikely story of bungling pirates, comic book policemen, a bumbling Major-General, and a hero, Frederic, confused by everything around him, especially women, and saved by the convoluted technicalities of being born on the 29 February?

He does not intend to do anything radically different. “It’s a big deal for me that I do not want to do a traditional production, but I have decided to set it around the time it was written, 1877,” says Lloyd-Evans. “It is satire, of course, but of all the G&S operas, this is the least sharp-toothed. It’s more like being gummed by the granny of satire than bitten by the shark. You have to be careful with it. If you take it out of period, it can become an uphill battle till you reach a point where you 
might as well just write a new piece.”

That will be music to the ears of the company synonymous with G&S productions, D’Oyly Carte Opera, whose partnership in this co-production with Scottish Opera marks its first return to staged activity since it fell on hard times and ceased productions 10 years ago. “It’s so important to have D’Oyly Carte on board,” says Lloyd-Evans. “They’d been looking for ways to get back on stage, and Scottish Opera was keen to broaden its profile in that area of repertoire, so it was a way for both companies to gain from each other.”

The way the deal works, D’Oyly Carte has provided one of its most experienced G&S conductors, John Owen Edwards, along with “a company DNA” that goes back to the original Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan’s time; while Scottish Opera’s contribution is the production itself, the involvement of Lloyd-Evans, and a cast that includes G&S legend Richard Suart as the nutty Major-General. It also means that, beyond its regular Scottish performances, Scottish Opera can tour the production in England and Wales. As for the cast – which opens with Nicholas Sharratt as Frederic and Stephanis Corley as Mabel – Lloyd-Evans believes they have it in them to produce a performance that will give credence to the absurd, and have “a twinkle in its eye”.

“They have that operatic ability to do things with the music. Moments like Frederic’s and Mabel’s duet can be really beautiful when put in the hands of really capable voices, and that offers a different slant on the power of the music,” he says.

As for the parodies of Verdi and others, so often talked about in Sullivan’s music, Lloyd-Evans likes to play that down. “The trouble with over-analysis and the whole notion of parody is, how do you produce it on stage? I don’t want that kind of analysis in this production; I want vitality and spontaneity.”

“So when you hear a Verdian chorus like Hail Poetry, and you have a 50-strong operatic chorus and principals going at it hammer and tongs, the effect is simply spine-tingling. When they sing like that, who cares about the parody? It is incredibly powerful.”

The trick, then, is to respect Gilbert and Sullivan’s works for being much more than the trifles they are often thought to be. They are up there with Offenbach’s equally giddy operettas; some might even compare them to the farcical end of Richard Strauss’ output. “

Every country needed its own satire; different flavours for different countries,” says Lloyd-Evans, who recently produced Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne for London’s Guildhall School of Music. “Gilbert was the English satirical voice of his time.”

It’s all, he says, about taking things seriously. “In that way certain bits of music suddenly open up and become touching. You have to allow the ludicrousness, the absurdity and the stupidity to be just that, not something plastered on top, but strong in their capacity to be moving amidst the topsy-turvy world of G&S, which, more than anything, has the power to make people laugh.”

• Scottish Opera’s new production of The Pirates of Penzance is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 15-18 May; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, from 23-25; Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 28 May until 1 June and at Eden Court, Inverness, from 6-8 June, see www.scottishopera.org.uk