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Return to THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE main page




Gilbert and Sullivan Society · Exeter · Devon

Written by W S Gilbert

Composed by Arthur Sullivan


    The Pirates of Penzance opened on 3rd April 1880, two months following H.M.S Pinafore’s closure. H.M.S. Pinafore has begun to appear in innumerable versions all over America, upsetting author, composer and manager who did not see a penny of the profits.


    Consequently, The Pirates of Penzance received its real première in New York at the Fifth Avenue Theatre on 31st December 1879.

    To secure the English copyright, a simultaneous performance was given in England on 30th December, at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon.


    The Pirates of Penzance played at the Opera Comique until 2nd April 1881.

    Act one

    Cornwall, England, with Queen Victoria on the throne. The infamous Pirates of Penzance are throwing a birthday party for their young apprentice, Frederic, who is now a fully-fledged swashbuckler! Alas, he reveals that he is to leave them that very day and devote the rest of his life to their extermination. He loathes their villainous ways and became a pirate only because his nursemaid, Ruth, apprenticed him by mistake. Before leaving, Frederic tries to persuade the pirates to give up their piratical ways, but with no success.

    Frederic is left with Ruth, who has persuaded him that she is in fact a beautiful woman, despite being a haggard forty-seven. All looks good for Ruth until Frederic spots a bevy of young beauties approaching. He rails at Ruth’s  treachery: she flees: Frederic, prudently, hides. The daughters of Major-General Stanley arrive on a picnic. They’re just about to throw caution and stockings to the wind for a paddle when Frederic leaps out to stop them. Their horror at being observed is tempered by their realisation that this ex-pirate is also a very cute young man. When he pleads with them for one of them to be his wife, it is all they can do to resist his charms, but they all do, prudently putting position above principle.

    All, that is, except Mabel, who puts herself forward to the suddenly nervous innocent Frederic. The daughters politely discuss the weather to enable Mabel and Frederic to indulge in some awkward courtship, which is interrupted by the sudden return of the  pirates, who attempt to seize the maidens   and carry them off to the nearest clergyman. Battle ensues, until the arrival of the daughters’ papa, Major-General Stanley.

    The Major-General, realising the danger,  pleads that he is an orphan.
    The pirates are famous for freeing orphans they capture - being all orphans themselves - and they do exactly that. The daughters, Major-General and Frederic and Mabel make their escape.


    Act two

    Awakened in the middle of the night, the daughters find their father in the family crypt racked with guilt at his lie. Frederic comforts him with the news that he has assembled the local police, who march in to demonstrate their heroic manliness. Unfortunately, the daughters notice that the police are terrified and taunt the poor coppers with descriptions of their mutilated corpses, so they flee again with everyone in hot pursuit.

    Frederic is about to follow, when from the shadows sidles the Pirate King, and Ruth,  now a full-fledged pirate. They reveal to Frederic that due to being born on 29th February - he has not yet reached his 21st birthday, but only his 5th birthday!

    Frederic, dutiful as ever, solemnly agrees his pirate pledge, and revenge on the Major General is sought. Seeing Mabel for one last time, they each confess their love for the other. Ecstatic, they swear to wait for each other until Frederic is again free of his indentures in some sixty years time.

    Mabel, however, not prepared to sit about  and pine until 1940, summons the police again and orders them to go after the pirates. Their philosophical musings are terminated by the arrival of the furious pirate band, out for blood. The policemen hide, and then the pirates hide in turn as Major-General Stanley appears. The appearance of his daughters is the cue for the pirates to pounce.

    The police leap from hiding only to be completely overwhelmed.

    Just as the Major-General is about to be beheaded by the triumphant pirates, the police try one last patriotic tactic: they appeal to the pirates to yield in the name of Queen Victoria. The pirates being proud Britons, this succeeds immediately, and they surrender.

    All is now lost for Frederic and the pirates, as they face imprisonment or worse.

    Ruth however, springs one further surprise which brings about a happy and satisfactory ending for all.


    ACT 1

    Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry
    Chorus of Pirates & Pirate King

    When Fred’ric was a little lad

    Oh, better far to live and die
    Pirate King & Chorus

    Oh! False one, you have deceived me
    Ruth & Frederic

    Climbing over rocky mountain
    Chorus of Girls

    Stop, ladies, pray!
    Edith, Kate, Frederic & Chorus of Girls

    Oh! Is there not one maiden breast
    Frederic & Chorus of Girls

    Poor wand’ring one
    Mabel & Chorus of Girls

    What ought we to do? Gentle sisters, say!
    Edith, Kate & Chorus of Girls

    How beautifully blue the sky
    Mabel, Frederic & Chorus of Girls

    Stay, we must not lose our senses
    Frederic, Chorus of Girls & Pirates

    Hold, monsters!
    Mabel, Major-General, Samuel & Chorus

    I am the very model of a modern Major-General
    Major-General & Chorus

    Oh! Men of dark and dismal fate
    Mabel, Edith, Kate, Frederick, Samuel, Pirate King,
    Major General, Ruth & Chorus

    ACT 2

    Oh! Dry the glist’ning tear
    Mabel & Chorus of Girls

    Now, Frederic, let your escort lion-hearted
    Frederic & Major-General

    When the foeman bears his steel
    Sergeant, Mabel, Edith & Chorus

    Now for the pirates’ lair!
    Frederic, King & Ruth

    When you had left our pirate fold
    Ruth, Frederic & Pirate King

    Away, away, my heart’s on fire!
    Ruth, Frederic & Pirate King

    All is prepared! Your gallant crew await you!
    Mabel & Frederic

    Stay, Frederic, stay!
    Mabel & Frederic

    No, I’ll be brave! Oh, family descent
    Mabel & Chorus of Police

    When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
    Sergeant & Chorus

    A rollicking band of pirates we
    Sergeant, Police & Chorus of Pirates

    With cat-like tread
    Samuel & Chorus of Pirates

    Hush! Hush! Not a word Frederic
    Pirate King, Major-General, Police & Pirates

    Sighing softly to the river
    Major-General, Chorus of Pirates & Police

    Full Company



    Major-General Stanley
    comic baritone

    The Pirate King

    Samuel, his Lieutenant

    Frederic, the Pirate Apprentice

    Sergeant of Police




    speaking role

    a Piratical Maid of all work - contralto


    Chorus of Pirates, Police and General Stanley’s Daughters



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       Annotated copy of the standard libretto of
    The Pirates of Penzance


      Annotated copy of the libretto of
    The Pirates of Penzance, presenting material
    performed at the premiérès in Paignton, New York
    and London


      Recit No:20a - replaces the dialogue beginning
    ‘Here, take her sir’, immediately before the
    Act Two Finale


      Early D'Oyly Carte prompt


      Another early D'Oyly Carte prompt book



    Audio or video media is available
    for this item (subject to compatibility with your chosen media player software installed)

    Please be aware that St David’s Players are not responsible for the content or availability of content on external websites

    Reviews currently included here have been posted by contributor, Ian Bond, and are his personal views, and these may not represent the views of St David’s Players as a Society.

    When one considers the popularity of The Pirates Of Penzance it is hardly surprising to find that a complete recording of the opera was issued by His Master’s Voice as long ago as 1921. Although supervised by Rupert D’Oyly Carte, only two of the principal singers were members of the opera company.

    With the advent of the Compact Disc and the enterprise of a number of independent (often private) labels, recordings such as this are once more available, and often in greatly improved and enhanced sound quality. This 1921 recording features George Baker as the Major-General, Peter Dawson as the Police Sergeant, Derek Oldham as Frederic, Violet Essex as Mabel and Edna Thornton as Ruth. This was of course an acoustic recording. This recording is currently available in two private issues, Sounds On CD VGS210 and 78s2cd GS07C. Both are private labels Sounds on CD being (until recently) a UK based label and 78s2cd a US based enterprise. Both labels are now freely available over the internet.  See links to both sites on the links page .

    With the advent of electrical recording in 1927, His Master’s Voice, having already recorded 9 of the operas acoustically, began to re-record all the operas again. This time George Baker retained the role of the Major-General. Peter Dawson was promoted to Pirate King and Stuart Robertson was cast as Samuel. The rest of the Cast were all D’Oyly Carte singers with Derek Oldham once more stunning as Frederic, Elsie Griffin magnificent as Mabel and Dorothy Gill equally magnificent as Ruth. Musical Director is Dr Malcolm Sargent who shows none of the lethargy present in his recordings with Glyndebourne in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Both Sounds on CD (VGS243) and 78s2cd

    Both Sounds on CD and 78s2cd have issued single disc versions of this performance, as have PRO-ARTE CDD597. Arabesque (Z8068-2 pictured) issue the recording on 2 discs coupled with the 1933 abridged Sorcerer.

    With the severe recession that hit the UK in the early 30’s His Master’s Voice made a decision to issue abridged recordings of four of the operas.

    One of these was Pirates (1931). George Baker repeats his previous performances as Major-General but Darrell Fancourt is now Pirate King. Derek Oldham repeats Frederic. Much admired soprano Muriel Dickson plays Mabel and the legendary Bertha Lewis sings Ruth. Once again Malcolm Sargent conducts.

    Both Sounds on CD and 78s2cd issue this recording as a 2 disc set coupled with the other three abridged recordings, Sorcerer, Yeomen and Gondoliers.

    Between 1936 and 1949 no Gilbert and Sullivan recordings were made at all. The war intervened and at it’s conclusion a new company appeared to start a new series of recordings. This was affectionately known as the DECCA ‘First Series’ and was recorded between 1949 and 1955 totalling 11 operas.

    Pirates was one of the first to appear being recorded in 1949. The cast is typical of the day with lynch pin Martyn Green as a peppery Major-General, Darrell Fancourt as a blustering Pirate King, the delightful Muriel Harding as a charming Mabel and the statuesque Ella Halman as Ruth. Leonard Osborn is somewhat disappointing as Frederic, sounding as he always did, rather nasal, but I understand that he was in fact superb on stage. Dear old Isidore Godfrey is in the pit and the piece rattles off at a cracking pace.

    Reissues of this recording abound with Sounds on CD (VGS214) coupling the opera with the 1949 Trial. The same coupling is adopted by Pearl (GEMS0097) and Naxos (8.110196-97). Regis (RRC2061) couple their issue with highlights from the 1951 recording of Patience.

    The combination of D’Oyly Carte and DECCA both at their respective finest will probably never be beaten. Just such a partnership came about with the commencement of the DECCA ‘Second Series’ which started in 1957 and finished in 1967. Again 11 operas were recorded in full (4 with dialogue) and Cox and Box plus excerpts from Utopia, (Limited) were added.

    Pirates was one of the first and was issued in DECCA’s new ‘Full Frequency Stereo Sound’. The effect was (and still is) stunning as the characters seem to be moving around the sound stage in front of your very eyes (or ears)? Dialogue was not included (that would come with Pinafore in 1959), but that is of no consequence. Here we have a cast to die for from the true silver age of the post war D’Oyly Carte. Donald Adams proved why he was one of the greatest D’Oyly Carte basses as the Pirate King and Peter Pratt (in his last year with the company) cannot be surpassed, (at least not in the recording studio), as the Major-General. Thomas Round is the quintessential Frederic and takes his high notes with such ease as to make it all sound so simple. Kenneth Sandford (one of the company’s best loved bass-baritones) sets his mark on the Sergeant. One of the most delightful trio of daughters is found in Jean Hindmarsh (Mabel), Beryl Dixon (Edith) and Marion Martin (Kate), and Isidore Godfrey’s wife, Ann Drummond-Grant (Drummie) is simply glorious as Ruth. Godfrey’s conducting may be slightly relaxed here but there is still a great deal of punch and zest and the transfer to CD from the original master tapes brings out a great amount of detail that one may have missed on the original LPs. This has to be one of the best Pirates ever committed to disc.

    ‘Climbing over rocky mountain’ from this recording.

    This recording is available from Sounds on CD (VGS236) under license from DECCAThis recording is also now available of the Magdalen label - METCD 8007 coupled with some choral and dance band medleys.

    Over the years there have been many criticisms of the Sargent/Glyndebourne series and I am willing to admit that I have been as vociferous as many. However, with the last three recordings (Pirates, Patience and Ruddigore) Sargent seemed to recapture something of the youthful enthusiasm of his D’Oyly Carte days in the late 20’s and early 30’s.

    George Baker appears once again as Major-General with Owen Brannigan as a very Cornish Sergeant of Police. Elsie Morison and Heather Harper are perhaps a little too heavy for Mabel and Edith, but Monica Sinclair is a superb Ruth. The whole has a very definite swagger about it that is persuasive. The current issue is coupled with the overtures to Sorcerer, Cox and Box, Ida and In Memoriam. The recording was available only on the HMV Classic label (HMVD 5 73062 2), but has recently been re-released again, this time on Classics for Pleasure.

    This recording has been issued in a number of digital transfers, including Sounds on CD VGS 201, and as an MP3 download from 78s2cd GS04C

    DECCA’s ‘Third Series’ (sadly never completed) commenced in 1968 with this recording of Pirates. Isidore Godfrey was again in charge and gives more pace to the performance than in 1957, but all the same this is not quite as good. Donald Adams is still there as Pirate King and the inimitable John Reed turns in a superb performance as Major-General. Philip Potter is a charming Frederic, Valerie Masterson stunning as Mabel (no wonder she went on to an international career), but somehow the whole does not add up. The dialogue is included but seems somehow at odds with the rest of the production, whilst Owen Brannigan (guesting as Sergeant) so good on the Glyndebourne recording, here seems way over the top.

    The original LP was later remastered in digital sound and reissued, then transferred to CD.
    It is now reissued again with the original artwork, at mid-price and is excellent value. DECCA (473 650-2).

    1990 saw the release of the New D’Oyly Carte recording. The reformed company now boasted a high musical standard not seen since the 50’s and 60’s and despite a somewhat quirky production this proved to be excellent overall. Having said that, no single member of the cast actually stands out head and shoulders above all the others - which is actually a good thing as it gives a chance to re-evaluate the opera itself.

    The whole is a joy from start to finish, presented (as on stage) at a cracking pace under the musical direction of John Pryce Jones. The band parts had been prepared from Sullivan’s original autograph manuscript and so bear the hallmark of total authenticity. This also is the only recording to include the “What all noblemen? Well nearly all” sequence (cashing in on the popularity of Pinafore) in the Act Two finale.

    This recording is available from
    TER (CDTER2 1177).

     The 1957 D’Oyly Carte/DECCA issue can probably never be topped, but the recording by Mackerras and the Welsh National Opera runs it a very close second. Recorded in 1993 Mackerras has the advantage of two stalwart Savoyards in his cast, Donald Adams (Pirate King) and Gillian Knight (Ruth). He also has Richard Suart (Major-General) before he started to go ‘over the top’, plus the presence of such names as Richard Van Allan, John Mark Ainsley and Rebecca Evans.

    The opera is squeezed onto a single disc, minus the overture, and is presented at a cracking pace which really benefits the piece, (although Gillian Knight struggles in her first duet with Frederic).

    All in all for a non-D’Oyly Carte cast this is an excellent recording to be highly recommended.

    The recording is issued on the
    TELARC label CD-80353.

    There is a highly enjoyable if non-traditional production emanating from the Stratford (Ontario, Canada) production of 1985. In the main the opera is presented straight, although there are a few deviations (dialogue) and a few unexpected repeats (musical). The production wavers between the traditional D’Oyly Carte and the updated Broadway but unlike some later productions, actually works.

    This is a production not to be judged but to be enjoyed and if one sets aside the expectations of a D’Oyly Carte, Welsh National or English National production, this is a DVD bound to be enjoyed.

    The DVD comes as part of a three disc set (with IOLANTHE and MIKADO) or separately. It may be labelled as Region 1 encoding, but this is in fact not the case. The DVD is in NTSC format but is playable on a DVD player that can play NTSC no matter what region.

    The DVD is issued by ACORN (AMP3480) and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon US.

    The Brent Walker series has come in for a considerable amount of flack over the years and the reissue on DVD by no means dispels all the arguments. However, the production is much better than perhaps one has been led to believe. The production does tend to fall between two stools (traditional D’Oyly Carte and Broadway) but there are many excellent moments. Gillian Knight (Ruth) brings her D’Oyly Carte experience to the fore in an excellent performance.


    The complete set of 12 operas has been reissued in new packaging and with complete production libretto included in each case,
    by Universal (catalogue number DVD 8228651-11), the rrp is £99.99 although it can
    be found much cheaper. The price at
    Amazon constantly varies and it is always worth checking out . Each separate disc now has its own catalogue number and this DVD is available separately on 823 118-4.