The Pirates of Penzance


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Prepared by Ian Bond

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Arriving at a definitive version of the libretto for this opera is particularly difficult, as the piece exists in three identifiable versions - the first 'copyright' performance at Paignton, Devon - the official 'world première' in New York - and the official British première in London. Of the three, the Paignton version contains the most differences.

Gilbert, Sullivan and a fully rehearsed H.M.S. PINAFORE company, left London by boat train for Liverpool on the 25th October 1879, where they boarded the Bothnia, D'Oyly Carte and six of the principals following six days later on the Gallia. The advance party arrived in New York on the 5th November.

The libretto for the copyright performance at Paignton was presumably left with Helen Lenoir (later Helen D'Oyly Carte), who was in charge of the London and British touring companies.

How much of the material written in New York could possibly have been sent back to London in time to be forwarded to the D'Oyly Carte "B" company, already out on the road when the American company left Liverpool, is unknown - considering the considerable differences between the two versions, not much it would appear. Bearing in mind that any work sent from New York would need at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, reach the company out on the road and allow for even the briefest rehearsal, the latest date a despatch could have been made was the 16th December at which stage Sullivan's diary reveals he was still composing.

So where did the music for the Paignton performance come from? It is known that in the summer of 1879 Sullivan asked his secretary to obtain all the performance material for THESPIS from the Gaiety Theatre. It will also be seen that the chorus 'Climbing over rocky mountain' was included in the first act from the earliest drafts of the libretto. It is tempting therefore to speculate that perhaps the music used at Paignton had been adapted in part from the earlier work.

Whatever the truth, and we shall probably never know, Mr. D'Oyly Carte's "2nd Pinafore Company", as it became known from the 4th August, had the honour of travelling along the coast from Torquay to the little town of Paignton on Tuesday 30th December 1879, where, at the little Royal Bijou Theatre in the Gerston Hotel, just beside the railway station, they presented the first ever performance of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Sadly both theatre and hotel have long since gone and a modern block of shops and offices stands on the site. There is, however, a blue plaque to commemorate the event.

In this edition of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, dialogue and lyrics performed only at the Paignton première are printed in purple; those performed only at New York in dark green; and those presented at both but not in London, in gold.

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