Opera review: The Pirates of Penzance, G&S Fest

Featuring clever staging, colourful costumes, cheeky comedy and beautiful work from the ASO and SOSA, this production is a delight.

It’s easy to see why The Pirates of Penzance has been such a staple of the comic opera canon since its debut in 1879. From that initial run of almost 400 performances to its newest incarnation as part of Stuart Maunder’s Gilbert and Sullivan Festival – the G&S FestPirates has charmed audiences around the world.

This production really is a delight with clever staging, colourful costumes, cheeky comedy and beautiful work from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the enthusiastic baton of Anthony Hunt. But that’s all just froufrou if the singing doesn’t meet the mark. On opening night there were no such concerns. The cast were uniformly excellent from the dashing principals to the hard-working chorus.

Like most operettas, the story is simple and silly, but it also reflects important social concerns of the day. There is a clue in the work’s secondary name, The Slave of Duty. It’s about class and status, good versus evil (or at least police versus pirates) and doing one’s duty to Queen and Country. There’s also a love story and a dozen single daughters in need of husbands. It’s funny and joyous, a musical celebration of life.  

It’s comedic, of course. Poor Frederic had the misfortune of being born on 29 February in a leap year and his future hinges on him reaching his 21st birthday – not his 21st year. And as for all those naughty pirates, they’re not really bad guys at all, just the sons of noblemen ‘gone wrong’.

Ben Mingay makes the perfect Pirate King, striding the stage with flouncy machismo and belting out his songs with a rich full baritone. Tenor John Longmuir makes a nice contrast as the hapless Frederic, and Antoinette Halloran is an absolute delight as Ruth, the pirates’ go-to Jill-of-all-trades. Desiree Frahn is delicate and beautiful as Mabel, the Major-General’s daughter (one of the many!) and Frederic’s love interest. And a very special mention must go to Douglas McNicol who is wonderful throughout and exceptional in the famously tongue-twisting ‘Major-General’s Song’.

Much of the joy of Pirates depends on the physicality and comic timing of the performers and they handle this brilliantly, especially in the big moments with all the State Opera Chorus on stage.

The clever staging by set designer Richard Roberts and wonderful lighting by Trudy Dalgleish add immeasurably to the enjoyment of this delightful production. Roger Kirk’s costumes are charming and create a lovely palette, especially for the female chorus.

Read: Musical review: Once, Darlinghurst Theatre Company

This production really is just a joy from start to finish and will appeal to opera newcomers as much as G&S aficionados. My 12-year-old companion on opening night really had no idea what to expect of his first operetta and found he loved every moment.

At its heart, Pirates of Penzance may well just be panto for posh people, but there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s such a polished performance. Bravo indeed!

Pirates of Penzance
Words by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
State Opera of SA with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Until 20 May 2023

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.