Wednesday 10 August 2022

Colour and movement: Gilbert & Sullivan returns to Opera Holland Park with HMS Pinafore

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Peter Kirk, Llio Evans - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Peter Kirk, Llio Evans - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore; Llio Evans, Peter Kirk, John Savournin, Richard Burkhard, Lucy Schaufer, director: John Savournin, City of London Sinfonia, conductor: David Eaton; Opera Holland Park and Charles Court Opera
Reviewed 9 August 2022 (★★★★)

Gilbert & Sullivan returns to Opera Holland Park with an admirably straight, yet funny, account of the duo's first big hit

When you think about it, the plot of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore is mighty disturbing. To further his career a captain in the Navy plans to marry his daughter off to a man old enough to be her grandfather. But she is in love with a sailor, who just happens to have been swapped as a baby with the said captain. All is righted, and the daughter marries her love. That is she marries a man the same age as her father, who has not progressed in his career at all so is still a lowly seaman in middle age, is taken as no matter. But thanks to some terrific music audiences happily overlook theses elements and the work regularly holds the stage in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon. 

This year, Opera Holland Park again closed the season with a collaboration with Charles Court Opera following last year's production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance with HMS Pinafore this year (seen 9 August 2022). John Savournin, artistic director of Charles Court Opera, directed and sang the role of Captain Corcoran, with Peter Kirk as Ralph Rackstraw, Llio Evans as Josephine, Richard Burkhard as Sir Joseph Porter, Lucy Schaufer as Little Buttercup, and Nicholas Crawley as Dick Deadeye. David Eaton, music director of Charles Court Opera, conducted the City of London Sinfonia. Designs were by Madeleine Boyd, with lighting by Jake Wiltshire and choreography by David Hulston.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - John Savournin, Llio Evans, Richard Burkhard - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - John Savournin, Llio Evans, Richard Burkhard - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

There was an interesting element of compare and contrast to the production. Not only did English National Opera do a new production of the opera last October [see my review], but in that production Captain Corcoran was played by John Savournin, who directed the Opera Holland Park production and played the same role. Cal McCrystal's production at ENO was notable for the way that the director over-egged the production to compensate for the work's relative lack of satire and belly laughs.

The plot is rather less madcap than some of Gilbert's prime ones, and Savournin simply took the work as it stands, there were no major rewrites in the dialogue and thankfully it was not larded with lots of topical issues. We had an interesting discussion during the interval as to how cutting edge you want your Gilbert & Sullivan to be. Satire and comedy can age very badly, and we can never completely recapture the sense of the original audiences of the Savoy Operas having a mirror held up, no matter how gently, to their own foibles. Either you update, or you leave be and let the work stand on other virtues. I prefer this latter approach, and it was the one that Savournin took.

The setting was still a Naval warship, but the era had been shifted to the 1930s or 1940s (costumes were rather more 1940s, but there was no reference to the war). Probably the last era in the 20th century when the opera's satire on class and hierarchy could work adequately. Accents were suitable cut glass, and the only major tweak to the plot was the Buttercup (Lucy Schaufer) was now an ENSA type Naval rating, her first song done as an entertainment for the men.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Lucy Schaufer - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Lucy Schaufer - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

This was a relatively small scale production, with a chorus of six and an orchestra based on a string ensemble of seven players with single wind (orchestral reduction by Richard Balcombe). Both Eaton and Savournin seemed to relish the litheness and challenge that this brought; there was never any sense of struggling to fill the theatre, and overall everything was vivid. However, sheer numbers meant that the chorus had a lot of ground to cover in the production numbers, and choreographer David Hulston also made a virtue of this, there was lots of jogging and running, everything stylised and done with winsome enthusiasm. 

Peter Kirk made an engaging Ralph Rackstraw, lithe of voice and naïve of manner. Ralph doesn't get any of the work's real hit numbers, but Kirk made his opening solo a thing of lyric beauty and throughout delighted. Llio Evans' Josephine was kitted out with a truly remarkable period hairstyle, but Evans managed to overcome this and create a lovely sense of Josephine the rather serious girl, struggling with her love for the sailor. One of the opera's other targets is melodrama, and Evans and Kirk really mined this in their beautifully overdone dialogue, 'Refrain, audacious tar'.

Savournin made quite a serious Captain Corcoran, his opening number to Act Two beautifully sung. But Savournin also has a lovely, and often understated, sense of comedy so that 'I am the Captain of the Pinafore' was done in a pointed yet straight manner which played up the comedy. It is Sir Joseph, of course, who bears the brunt of Gilbert's pen and Richard Burkhard made 'I am the Monarch of the sea' into an engaging skewering of Sir Joseph's intentions. Burkhard's deft manipulation of the (largely not updated) words was indeed funny. There was one element in the staging of this song that was not developed, alas, the suggestion that Sir Joseph might have a rather unsuitable attraction to the male form.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Themba Mvula & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Themba Mvula & chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

Buttercup is less of a character than a bundle of characteristic traits and she begins a long line of Gilbert's 'elderly' women as the butt of his humour. Lucy Schaufer played her with deft glamour and more than one sexy wiggle, yet was alert to many of the role's possibilities. Schaufer had great comic timing and most of her contributions had a funny element, whilst she mined a fine lower register to give us some terrific songs from her opening number onwards.

The smaller roles were all well taken. Nicholas Crawley gave a brilliant turn as a beautifully over-done Dick Deadeye, the character whose unpopular pronouncements are often right, with Themba Mvula as an enthusiastic Bill Bobstay, and Peter Lidbetter as Bob Becket. Sophie Dicks was delightful as a Cousin Hebe who spends the evening angling to capture Sir Joseph for herself.

The chorus (chorus master Dominic Ellis-Peckham) was extremely hardworking, but they seemed to be having fun and this enjoyment spilled over. David Hulston's routines were engagingly done indeed. Savournin wisely made much use of the forestage, thus bringing his cast right to the front, and the evening certainly filled the theatre with colour and movement.

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

David Eaton and the City of London Sinfonia made up in articulation and clarity what they might have lacked in sheer weight of numbers. Sullivan's orchestrations always had a great clarity to them, he was at pains to not cover the words, and here Eaton and his players made that a virtue whilst giving the music plenty of character.

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