Last Updated on 21st August 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at Opera Holland Park.
Opera Holland Park
11 August 2022
For the second year running, the summer evenings at Opera Holland Park wind down joyfully in a joint production with Charles Court Opera offering a bonne bouche of G&S. Last year, it was Pirates, and this year, Pinafore. It is pretty much the same team, and with a similar excellent blend of respect for the traditional strengths of the original, alongside a willingness to update and re-invent the settings. John Savournin drives things forward as director and as Captain Corcoran; David Eaton keeps things both incisive and fluent in the pit, and Richard Burkhard is master of the patter song, this time just swapping over pomposities from army to navy.
Despite his reputation for savage satire, W.S.Gilbert did not have a free hand to criticise Victorian England. Part of the point of the world of ‘Topsy-Turvy’ he cultivated was to keep his audience guessing as to how serious his criticisms were. There are always fresh levels of ambiguity to be introduced both in messaging and layering of characters. And in HMS Pinafore, where the target is the English class system and the cruel consequences of accidents of birth, there are no out-and-out heroes or villains. Indeed, Dick Deadeye, the apparent villain is in fact the only consistent teller of uncomfortable truths. Captain Corcoran may be a model captain at the start 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 ways, but is a hugely patronising liberal in others, still retreating into class privilege whenever he encounters pushback from the working class. By the very end, we are unclear whether ‘patriotism’ and other contemporary social values are the objects of praise or ridicule, or both, a blurred perspective that is enhanced by Sullivan’s alternately jaunty and charmingly sweet settings.
The edginess of Gilbert’s dramaturgy was for decades concealed by the fustiness of many of the surviving D’Oyly Carte traditions. But the willingness of new productions, such as this one, to relocate the setting to another era, has freed up the radical spirit of the original once more. Here we find ourselves in the 1940s, with naval uniforms, women’s fashion and hairstyles all echoing World War Two. But rightly Savournin resisted the temptation to go further and to introduce any contemporary satirical references. Sir Joseph Porter’s account of his rise from office boy to the Admiralty points its own effortless parallels with our own politics (‘I always voted at my party’s call, and never thought of thinking for myself at all.’) When so many directors tinker with the text because of a fundamental lack of trust, it is so refreshing to find one who still relies on the original to deliver the goods.
This is 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 (‘who he reckons on by dozens’) and aunts. The orchestra is on the small side too. But this makes no difference to the quality of what is delivered. The acting and singing among the chorus are uniformly excellent, and David Hulston has expertly choreographed things into a constant bustle of motion giving the distinct impression that there are more people on the stage than you think there are. Savournin ensured the cast made good use of the walkway around the orchestra, and while the suggestions of life on-board ship were few, the costumes were detailed and convincing. Tempi are on the fast side, and none the worse for that, but that does not prevent some delicious solos emerging from the broader textures, especially from the clarinet.
Among the soloists not all the voices are the most beautiful, but they are still effective in their roles. Savournin turns in a characterisation of the ship’s Captain that demonstrates his usual expert comic timing and natural stage authority. He also points ‘Fair Moon…’, the difficult meditative number that opens Act 2, with real care. Burkhard finds more than enough humour and precise diction to get the satire of Sir Joseph across to the audience. It is a role that is all the funnier, the more seriously it is played. He also introduces a hint of homoeroticism into his admiration of the 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 unrecognisable from the other roles he has played for Opera Holland Park. Finally, Peter Kirk found the right blend of righteous anger and romantic yearning for the lead tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw, the ordinary tar who loves the captain’s daughter.
As said daughter, Josephine, Llio Evans, emphasised 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 her own advantage. Sophie Dicks did sterling work as Cousin Hebe; and Lucy Schaufer, fresh from Little Women, commanded the stage as Little Buttercup, in her too few numbers.
This is a production that deserves to succeed and to be revived in future years. It strikes the right balance between the text and the times and puts it across with high technical skill and unabashed enthusiasm. But in the end, as the sun set over the yardarm of Holland Park, it was enough to relax into the effervescent flow of cheerful skill, and ‘Never mind the why and wherefore…’