HMS Pinafore, Opera Holland Park ✭✭✭✭✭
Last updated August 20, 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore in Opera Holland Park.
Holland Opera Park
August 11, 2022
For the second consecutive year, the summer evenings at Holland Opera Park relax happily in a joint production with Charles Court Opera offering a Good mouth from G&S. Last year it was pirateand this year, Apron. It’s pretty much the same team, and with a similar great mix of respect for the traditional strengths of the original, as well as a willingness to update and reinvent settings. John Savournin gets things done as Manager and Captain Corcoran; David Eaton keeps things both incisive and smooth in the pit, and Richard Burkhard is the master of the crackle song, this time just swapping over the bombastics from Army to Navy.
Despite his reputation for savage satire, WSGilbert had no free hand to criticize Victorian England. Part of the interest of the “Topsy-Turvy” world he cultivated was to let his audience guess how serious his criticisms were. There are always new levels of ambiguity to introduce in both messaging and character layering. And in HMS Apron, where the target is the English class system and the cruel consequences of birth accidents, there are no hard-core heroes or villains. Indeed, Dick Deadeye, the apparent villain is actually the only consistent teller of uncomfortable truths. Captain Corcoran may be a model captain at first, but turns out to be something else by the end, as well as a conventional social climber along the way. Most egregiously, Sir Joseph Porter, Master of the Queen’s Navy, may be progressive in some respects but is an extremely condescending liberal in others, always retreating into class privilege whenever he encounters setback. of the working class. At the very end, we don’t know whether “patriotism” and other contemporary social values are the object of praise or ridicule, or both, a hazy perspective that is reinforced by the alternately playful and charming settings of Sullivan.
The nervousness of Gilbert’s dramaturgy was concealed for decades by the liveliness of many surviving D’Oyly Carte traditions. But the willingness of new productions, like this one, to shift the setting to another era, once again unleashed the radical spirit of the original. We find ourselves here in the 1940s, with navy uniforms, women’s fashion and hairstyles echoing the Second World War. But precisely Savournin resisted the temptation to go further and introduce any contemporary satirical reference. Sir Joseph Porter’s account of his rise from office boy to the Admiralty highlights its own effortless parallels to our own politics (“I always voted my party’s call and never thought to think for myself.”) When so many admins tinker with the text because of a basic lack of trust, it’s so refreshing to find one who still relies on the original to deliver the goods.
It’s a production that punches above its weight – literally. There are only twelve members of the chorus to cover the crew and all the sisters, cousins (“on whom he relies by the dozens”) and aunts. The orchestra is small too. But that doesn’t change the quality of what’s delivered. The acting and singing among the chorus is uniformly excellent, and David Hulston expertly choreographed things in a constant bustle of motion giving the distinct impression that there are more people on stage than you might think. Savournin made sure the actors made good use of the walkway around the orchestra, and although the suggestions of life aboard the ship were few, the costumes were detailed and compelling. Tempi are rather fast, and it’s not so bad for that, but that doesn’t prevent delicious solos emerging from larger textures, notably from the clarinet.
Among the soloists, not all voices are the most beautiful, but they are always effective in their roles. Savournin features a characterization of the ship’s captain that demonstrates his usual expert comedic timing and natural authority on stage. He also points to ‘Fair Moon…’, the difficult meditative number that opens Act 2, with real care. Burkhard finds more than enough humor and precise diction to bring Sir Joseph’s satire to the audience. It’s a role that’s all the funnier the more seriously it is played. He also introduces a hint of homoeroticism into his admiration for sailors that could have been explored further without unbalancing things. Nicholas Crawley was a strong presence as the noxious, in your face, Dick Deadeye, quite unrecognizable from the other roles he’s played for Opera Holland Park. Finally, Peter Kirk has found the right mix of righteous anger and romantic aspiration for the lead tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw, the ordinary tar who loves the captain’s daughter.
As said daughter, Josephine, Llio Evans underscored the more serious aspect of the role, exploring the conflict between romance and reason she faces, but was quick to turn Sir Joseph’s specious egalitarianism to his advantage. Sophie Hicks did a great job as Cousin Hebe; and Lucy Schaufer, fresh off the boat Little womancommanded the stage as Little Buttercup, in its too few numbers.
It is a production that deserves to succeed and be revived in the years to come. He strikes the right balance between text and time and conveys it with great technicality and unabashed enthusiasm. But in the end, as the sun set over the Holland Park courtyard, all one had to do was relax into the effervescent flow of joyful skill, and “Whatever the why and how…”