Painting: "Bay of Naples" by Ivan Aivazovsky.
History: Dismayed by the unauthorized productions of "H.M.S. Pinafore", being put on by Americans, Gilbert and Sullivan traveled to New York to compete by producing their own performance of "Pinafore" and present their audience with a new work. After the tremendous success of "Pinafore", Gilbert was eager to get started on the next opera, and he began working on the libretto as early as December 1878, again returning to the marine theme, though substituting the crew of sailors with a band of pirates. Sullivan actually composed the acts in reverse, intending to bring the completed Act II with him to New York, with Act I existing only in sketches. When he arrived in New York, however, he found that he had left the sketches behind, and he had to reconstruct the first act from memory and from the score of the pair's first work, "Thespis". Carte sent the libretto and score to Devon, England, only days before the New York premiere. His touring company gave a matinée performance in Paignton reading their parts from scripts (the audience was still very much delighted), thus, enabling Gilbert and Sullivan to establish copyright in both England and the United States. "The Pirates of Penzance or the Slave of Duty", opening on on the 31st of December, 1879, was an immediate hit in New York, running for a stunning 363 performances, and later (in April, 1880) in London, attaining 361 performances.
Narrative: Gilbert continued his practice of throwing his cast of loveable characters into an utterly ridiculous situation: the story concerns Frederic (tenor) who, having reached his 21st year, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of tenderhearted orphan pirates who are headed by the rather nonthreatening Pirate King (bass). Shortly thereafter he meets Mabel (soprano), the daughter of Major-General Stanley (baritone), and the two young people fall instantly in love. However, after much celebrations, Frederic finds out that he was born on the 29th of February, and so, technically, he only has a birthday each leap year (making him five years old), so he must serve the Pirate King for another 63 years. Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully. In the finale the pirates are taken into custody by a team of policemen under the command of a properly stern Sergeant (bass). Thankfully, Ruth (contralto), Frederic's nurse, appears at the last possible minute and reveals that the pirates are in fact "all noblemen who have gone wrong". The lovers are reunited, and the Major-General is happy to marry his daughters to the noble pirates after all.
Music: Sullivan himself thought very highly of "Pirates": "the libretto is beautifully written for music... infinitely superior in every way to "Pinafore", of a higher class altogether". Indeed, while the earlier score is immediately appealing, Sullivan, now reasonably assured of success, pulls all the stops out, providing his listener with an endless sequence of witty music: the three basses (well, technically, two baritones and a bass) are given no less than five delightfully humorous comic numbers - ranging from the Sergeant's swaggering "Trumpet" aria to the Major-General's painfully familiar (and still outrageously witty) patter-song. However, these numerous moments of good humor (much of which is presented through suitably over-the-top dialog and recitatives) are contrasted superbly with several strikingly serious episodes: Frederic's Nemorino-like aria with a charming accompaniment of romantic strings and short phrases for the winds, as well as a vocal line to die for; the superb chorale from the Act I finale which sounds like a true serious hymn (in this case, the cast hails "the poetry of life"); and, above all, the enchanting andante of the lovers' love scene which wouldn't seem out of place in a belcanto opera. While lacking the unity of "Pinafore", "Pirates", for all its' madcap plot changes and vivacious music, is, perhaps, the embodiment of Gilbert & Sullivan's talents and their true comedic masterpiece. A winning work on all counts.
Recording: Yet again, the "hidden treasure" is the performance itself, rather than the work the popularity of which is undying. The present 1993 "Telarc" recording precedes Mackerras' "Pinafore" by one year but the musical values are already all in place: the conductor's leadership is strong, the Orchestra & Chorus of the Welsh National Opera - fresh and delightful, the cast - virtually faultless (top honors go to the absolutely ideal pair of lovers). A perfect companion to the later "Pinafore".
Major-General Stanley - Richard Suart,
The Pirate King - Donald Adams,
Samuel (baritone), his lieutenant - Nicholas Folwell,
Frederic - John Mark Ainsley,
The Sergeant of Police - Richard Van Allan,
Mabel - Rebecca Evans,
Edith (mezzo-soprano), her sister - Julie Gossage,
Kate (mezzo-soprano), her sister - Jenevora Williams,
Ruth - Gillian Knight.
Hope you'll enjoy :).