Great moments in opera: Pirates of Penzance

January 23, 2012

The Pirates of Penzance followed the success of H.M.S. Pinafore, receiving its premiere (in New York, interestingly) in 1879. Like its predecessor, it is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most beloved works. It has the wit and charm characteristic of their most successful collaborations (even if, in my opinion, it is not quite as good as Pinafore and The Mikado).

The story is quite silly, as you would expect: a young man must serve a term of indentured servitude to a raft of pirates before he can marry his true love. Complications ensue.

Each of the clips below is taken from a 1983 film adaptation, starring Kevin Kline and — if you can believe it — Angela Lansbury. I am reluctant to use these clips because they are sort of odd: the voices are not recorded in a natural acoustic space, and there is something vaguely robotic about their sound. But there are not many clips of decent quality available, so I am stuck with these.

No doubt the most famous section of Penzance is the patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”. It is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s great hits, known (I imagine) to anyone who knows anything about any of Gilbert & Sullivan’s music, and much beloved.

The popularity of this song has led to many, many imitations. A few that I could find: about Obamatranshumanistspsychopharmacologists, and the periodic table.


It is sometimes not appreciated that Gilbert & Sullivan are occasionally poking fun at the operatic hits of their time. Penzance provides some good examples, and the particular target is Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Consider “With cat-like tread”, in which the pirates sing a rousing chorus about how quiet they are. This is a parody of the so-called “Anvil Chorus” in Il trovatore, which was much ridiculed for doing the same thing. It is really quite funny:

Another good example is the Policeman’s Chorus, “When the foeman bares his steel”. This is funny all the way through: it is a double-chorus, first for a group of men (the policemen) and then women (the Major-General’s numerous daughters); the men are confessing their fear at confronting the pirates, and the women are giving them, well, some sort of encouragement, I suppose. Towards the end the two choruses join forces in a contrapuntal tour de force, but the music ensnares them: they are singing about going on their way, but the music itself prevents their going. This is likely a parody of “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, in which the same absurdity occurs. But it is certainly humorous enough on its own terms:

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