Sunday 31 October 2021

Hi-jinks on the high-seas: Cal McCrystal's production of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore at English National Opera

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Marcus Farnsworth, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Ossian Huskinson - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Marcus Farnsworth, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Ossian Huskinson - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)

Gilbert & Sullivan HMS Pinafore; Les Dennis, John Savournin, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Alexandra Oomens, Hilary Summers, dir: Cal McCrystal, cond: Chris Hopkins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Physical comedy, running gags and Les Dennis, Cal McCrystal's new production is finely sung but somewhat over busy yet undeniably entertaining

Having given us a joyous production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe at English National Opera in 2018 [see my review] director Cal McCrystal returned with a further G&S for the company's first new production of the 2021/22 season. Cal McCrystal's production of HMS Pinafore opened at English National Opera on 29 October 2021 with Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter, John Savournin as Captain Corcoran, Elgan Llyr Thomas as Ralph Rackstraw, Henry Waddington as Dick Deadeye, Marcus Farnsworth as Bill Bobstay, Ossian Huskinson as Bob Becket, Alexandra Oomens as Josephine, Bethan Langford as Hebe and Hilary Summers as Buttercup. Chris Hopkins conducted, designs were by takis, and choreography by Lizzi Gee.

HMS Pinafore was only the second full-length collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and its humour is perhaps somewhat softer-edged than the later operas. The premise is less crazily topsy-turvy, and the work's poking fun at class and crony-dom seems to lack the satirical weight of later pieces. Cal McCrystal took a traditional very of the setting, and takis' designs gave us a very traditional poop-deck and period costuming, but within this McCrystal brought a whole armoury of comic gags to bear, to increase the laughter rate. So much so, that you felt he never quite trusted either Gilbert's text or Sullivan's music.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - ENO Chorus with Spencer Darlaston-Jones mid-air - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)

There were running gags - Flick Ferdinando as an elderly aunt constantly appearing at the wrong moment; a mini-me sidekick for John Savournin's Captain Corcoran in the form of Midshipmite Tom Tucker played by juvenile actor Rufus Bateman (all of nine years old) in scene-stealing form. There was over-egging the visuals including all sorts of flying interruptions during the music, from birds to Boris Johnson, there was a wide variety of extra jokes, often pushing the humour in the direction of rudery foreign to Gilbert's oeuvre, plus an amazing acrobatic sailor (Spencer Darlaston-Jones as the athletic Sergeant of Marines), scantily clad sailors and tap number opening Act Two, with John Savournin, Rufus Bateman, Marcus Farnsworth and Les Dennis all donning their tap shoes. 

McCrystal is a fine director and much of this was very funny, but unlike his production of Iolanthe, a lot of it felt added on and foreign to the drama, and his tendency to pull focus during the opera's more serious and understated numbers smacked of a crowd-pleasing distrust of Sullivan's music. The cast, however, entered into the hi-jinks with a will and the result was a well sung and entertaining evening in the theatre, albeit with the strong reservation that it could have been a more effective if McCrystal had shown greater trust in the piece. 

What McCrystal missed out of the mix was melodrama.

Many of the interactions between the characters are couched in language lifted directly out of Victorian melodrama. Both Ralph and Josephine's first responses to each other in the opera are pure melodrama and Gilbert is adept at setting such things up, only to puncture them. The way Ralph and Josephine swoon and finally fall for each other makes more sense if their initial responses are more over the top. Similarly, Dick Deadeye is an ugly villainous character, and Gilbert punctures this by making him talk sense throughout the opera. McCrystal seemed uninterested in this melodramatic aspect so that for example Josephine wasn't at all sharp-tongued and was instead very doll-like. Perhaps this was wise, modern audiences tend to shy away from the tradition of the Victorian melodrama, and a performance of HMS Pinafore played as it might have been in 1878 would not necessarily go down well with a modern audience, and certainly, the audience at the London Coliseum loved the physical comedy which, after all, is what McCrystal is known for.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Les Dennis, Bethan Langford - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Les Dennis, Bethan Langford - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote for singing actors and the original performances took place in relatively small theatres. George Grossmith, the first Sir Joseph Porter, had only a serviceable voice, which was evidently what Gilbert wanted. ENO's casting of Les Dennis in the role of Sir Joseph Porter was thus very much in tradition. Dennis played the role relatively straight, only stepping out of character briefly, and his comedy was largely done via the character Porter. He was indeed very funny and sang his hit number 'I am the monarch of the sea' with a nice dry wit. That Dennis has a highly serviceable voice was shown not so much by his delivery of this song, as by his ability to hold his own during ensemble moments such as the trio 'Never mind the why and wherefore' (with John Savournin and Alexandra Oomens), especially as this latter was sung whilst clambering around the rotating set!

HMS Pinafore is one of those pieces where everyone gets their moment so that though Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine Corcoran are the notional hero and heroine, there is plenty for everyone. In larger theatres, there has often been the tendency of companies to up the operatic quotient of the performance (The Australian Opera was once said to be considering casting Joan Sutherland as Josephine in Pinafore, opposite Rita Hunter as Buttercup). Following on from previous G&S performances, ENO gave the two youthful leads to two current Harewood Artists, Alexandra Oomens and Elgan Llyr Thomas. Both managed to fill the Coliseum without ever feeling like they were over singing, and both brought out the beauty of the musical side of the work. Not every song here is quite as memorable as later G&S operas, but Oomens and Thomas gave us plenty to enjoy and made highly believable lovers.

As Josephine's father, John Savournin completed his masterclass in G&S performance that was begun with Opera Holland Park's production of The Pirates of Penzance [see my review]. Here he was an all-singing, all-dancing Captain, funny and musical, charming and pompous, yet very much an ensemble player. Henry Waddington had a whale of a time as Dick Deadeye, smelly and dirty with some highly dodgy stains on his clothing, yet spouting complete sense. Marcus Farnsworth was somewhat wasted in the role of the boatswain, Bill Bobstay, but he was having so much fun (including demonstrating his tap skills) that we can hardly complain. Ossian Huskinson was the carpenter, Bob Becket, and his role was expanded in several ways, not just extra dialogue. Huskinson was one of the three sailors who appeared, for no apparent reason, wearing just towels and Huskinson gamely stayed like that for the madrigal (see the photograph at the top). Frankly, rather delightful but gratuitous.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Alexandra Oomens - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - Alexandra Oomens - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)

Hilary Summers made a delightful Buttercup, less conventional than some (the role is typically played as one with a fuller figure). Summers was funny and delightful, whilst managing to avoid most of the awful fat old lady tropes which G&S often brings to these contralto roles. There was robustness to her performance which extended to her singing and made the result refreshing. Similarly delightful was Bethan Langford's Hebe. This is not a large role, even though she has quite a bit of stage time, but Langford's physical language was superb, as her sisters, cousins and aunts gradually loosened up, basking in the glow of the sailors' attention, Langford's Hebe stayed wonderfully rigid-backed.

Rufus Bateman gave an amazing performance as Tom Tucker, demonstrating fine dancing and singing skills along with comic timing, whilst Spencer Darlaston-Jones produced some dazzling dancing and acrobatics. Flick Ferdinando was very game as the scene-stealing elderly aunt, but the joke felt horribly overextended, sexist and ageist, and was the aunt's look modelled on a distinguished grand dame of British fashion?

The chorus entered into things with a will, with the male sailors dancing away like billy-o in the choruses (always a necessity in G&S) and the female chorus really rocking their multi-hued crinolines. And their singing was terrific too. In the pit, Chris Hopkins showed a firm yet sympathetic hand. He rarely allowed too much lingering, which works well in this style of music, and kept things in crisply enjoyable shape (ship-shape indeed).

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - John Savournin, Rufus Bateman - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore  - John Savournin, Rufus Bateman - English National Opera (Photo Marc Brenner)

The performance was funny, musical and finely ensemble led, so there was much to enjoy but I came out thinking that perhaps if Cal McCrystal could be persuaded to simplify things then the opera might be more touching and even funnier.

HMS Pinafore on disc
A highly recommended recording of the piece must undoubtedly by Sir Charles Mackerras with Welsh National Opera and a strong cast of British acting singers [Amazon], whilst Richard Egarr (far more associated with Early Music) conducts a younger generation of British singers with Scottish Opera [Amazon]. There are a number of D'Oyly Carte recordings including one from 1960 conducted by Isidore Godfrey and one of the few on disc to include all the dialogue [Amazon]. Another one with complete dialogue is the 2000 D'Oyly Carte recording with conductor John Owen Edwards and this includes a number for Captain Corcoran, 'Reflect, my child' which was cut before the first night [Amazon]. 

There is also the classic one from 1958 with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting a fine array of British singers from the period including George Baker, Richard Lewis, Elsie Morrison, Owen Brannigan and Monica Sinclair [Amazon]. The 1929/30 recording was supervised by Rupert D'Oyly Carte and featured Henry Lytton (as Sir Joseph Porter), a singer who had worked with Gilbert & Sullivan [Amazon] There is even a film version on DVD with comedian Frankie Howerd [Amazon]

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