March 14, 15 17, 18 and April 22 (Robert Blackwood Hall)
David Gould and Claire Lyon
I was aware of Gilbert and Sullivan operas from school days. Indeed, G&S productions were my secondary school’s solitary cultural product, so I got to know intimately the chorus workings of Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado and The Gondoliers at a young age. Later, as a teacher/repetiteur, I came across the Savoy Operas once more at a school where, again, the solitary musical effort was exerted on an annual production. So, as well as the ones named above, I became familiar with the full range – several of them three or four times over – with the exception of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke.
Without denigrating these youthful activities, I have to admit that much of the time involved with productions was spent marshalling Year 12 young women and men to get through their choruses with something resembling four-part harmony intact, as well as watching other elders instruct and negotiate endless hours of choreography practice and handle the easily-bruised egos of minor-age principals in negotiating vocal lines outside their natural abilities. Still, an inside knowledge of Sullivan’s scores has broken through several social/personal barriers in my time.
What you miss out on when dragging half-willing adolescents into the worlds of Lady Sangazure and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd is Gilbert’s brilliant satire. Yes, the easy laughs we have always with us but the critiques that the librettist offered of his own civilization get left by the wayside in the pursuit of colour and movement. So the continual commentaries on aristocracy, capital, religion, feminism, racism and psychological frailty get overlooked or are given lip service in favour of belting out the rousing choruses, the arias and ensembles that everybody loves.
Fortunately, Melbourne Opera has entered into their opening H.M.S. Pinafore production for 2017 with persuasive gusto and, alongside giving the music its proper due, the company ensures that Gilbert’s biting commentary on ‘station’, jack-in-office stupidity and sacred cows is given prominence at every point. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production that keeps these underpinning themes at the forefront; not even the national company’s recording with Anthony Warlow, David Hobson and Tiffany Speight hones in on the script as well as this version from director/choreographer Robert Ray.
I can’t compete with true G&S aficionados in this city like Jim Murphy and the late David Thomas with the scores and libretti (and movements!) at their fingertips, but I can tell the appropriate – not necessarily the D’Oyly Carte – thing from the ersatz, modernised presentations that stretch an opera’s possibilities. For Melbourne Opera, Ray has kept the faith; even more than this, he has restored Captain Corcoran’s solo (or is it a duet?), Reflect, my child, as well as the original recitative setting of the work’s final dialogue. He has also constructed stage pictures that are spot-on – sailors in the right gear, the sisters/cousins/aunts straight out of My Fair Lady‘s Ascot scene, plenty of braid on Sir Joseph and credible billowing skirts on Buttercup.
As most musicians know, Sullivan’s scores don’t require a superlative technique but they depend on variety of attack to ameliorate plenty of jog-trot rhythm and – like the stage operations – the pit needs to be synchronous with the singers; no Wagner-type half-beat elisions and delays can succeed in this crisp, open music. Conductor Greg Hocking controlled a pretty stalwart band, notable for a competent string group whose bowing was generally uniform, and a reliable double sextet of winds. Only a few points showed hesitation, and these were traditional trouble-spots for both chorus and principals.
Another benefit emerged in this chorus, both genders singing with loads of vim and purpose. I’d forgotten what a joy it is to hear the women’s entry of Gaily tripping into the double chorus before the First Lord’s appearance: a combination of elements that sets you up for similar delights in the later operas. The MO women proved a fine counterweight to the hefty sailors, who were blessed with some fine tenors. Ray had positioned them all carefully enough with few signs of cramped movement although the Athenaeum stage is not large. Still, Gregory Carroll’s bright ship-deck design with a raised quarter-deck platform tucked into a stage corner gave the performers some latitude.
The company enjoyed the services of some excellent soloists just itching to get into their work. David Gould sang an unusually powerful Sir Joseph Porter; he observed all that functionary’s effeteness and pattered through a good deal of ‘business’, but his bass didn’t stay on the quarter-strength level of some interpretations I’ve seen, attacking upper-register notes with chorus-reflecting power. He found a fine balance in David Rogers-Smith’s Captain Corcoran, the bluffest of characters with Gilbert’s wickedly interposed layer of uncertainty and self-abasement in the presence of an upper-class bully. His low tenor was well-pitched to the theatre’s acoustic and the orchestral challenges; further, he gave a welcome energy to I am the Captain of the Pinafore and subtle strength to the Fair moon, to thee I sing aria that opens the work’s second act – although something of a miscalculation occurred with an oddly soft attack on the final note.
As Josephine, Claire Lyon contrived to be both agile and soulful, maintaining momentum and clarity of production (apart from an over-exerted top B flat) for Sorry her lot and later that dramatic spoof The hours creep on apace, resisting the temptation to overdraw the aria’s word-pictures. On top of this, she has that admirable talent of knowing her responsibilities in an ensemble – duet, trio, riding above a chorus – and exerting control over her dynamic superiority. An irrelevance, but perhaps the most amusing part of the performance came when a young boy’s voice sang out ‘Hello, Mummy’ between Lyon’s Act 2 scena and the rollicking trio; I assume the lad was intimately connected to the cast.
Ralph Rackstraw, the opera’s working-class hero with an unknown silver spoon waiting for him in the wings, is often played for laughs, the tendency being to assume the manner of Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk. Paul Biencourt did it straight, albeit with a pronounced lower-deck accent that dropped – as it should – for the singing and his verbose proposal to Josephine. Despite living up to his name in physique, the tenor generated a ringing and secure colour for his opening madrigal: dreamy if not soppy by nature but treated here with a sensible discipline. Andrea Creighton played a fine Buttercup, a character who has to hit melodramatic heights at every turn. As with the rest of this cast, she managed to err on the side of the angels when faced with her character’s plethora of asides and gave excellent value in the Things are seldom what they seem with Rogers-Smith, following the set moves of advance and retreat but projecting the catchphrases with fittingly amusing enigmatic force.
Jodie Debono made a personable Hebe, managing not to turn into an instant termagant when she eventually got Sir Joseph’s hand; Finn Gilheany matched Rogers-Smith in assertive projection and Peter Hanway worked through the light responsibilities of the Carpenter with a matching heartiness. Rounding out the crew was the Dick Deadeye of Roger Howell, who seems to have been singing for as long as I’ve been alive and has lost nothing along the way in energy, characterization skills and accurate delivery. He kept up a fine line in angularity and curmudgeonliness but still has a splendidly rich texture, as in his Kind Captain duet with Rogers-Smith.
Ray had also added Rule Britannia to the final scene, an interpolation by Sullivan for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. It probably made more of an impression at the time but these days, by the time you’ve heard A British tar and various reprises of He is an Englishman!, the nationalistic paint is reeking pretty thickly.
Nevertheless, this reading of Pinafore is thoroughly enjoyable for any spectator, indoctrinated Savoyard or someone fresh to the field. Sullivan’s music maintains its elevating high spirits across the years (nearly 140) and Gilbert’s acerbic take on Victorian England’s pretensions and foibles cuts even more sharply with the benefit of our hindsight. No wonder the old crone of Balmoral detested him.