Writer: William Schwenk Gilbert
Composer: Arthur Sullivan
Director: Jeff Clarke
Musical Director: Michael Waldron
Designer (Set): Graham Wynne
Designer (Costume): Nigel Howard
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
In its 25 year history Opera della Luna has become celebrated for versions of comic operas and operettas, notably Gilbert and Sullivan, which reflect the originality and (sometimes) eccentricity of director Jeff Clarke. They are never done exactly as written (the number of performers involved makes that impossible), but some are re-written, others such as H.M.S. Pinafore stick pretty close to the original.
This production, which dates back to 2001, but is showing no lack of freshness, has an interesting history. Originally it was commissioned for the QE2 and had to run precisely one hour: Pinafore is pretty short, but not that short. Later it was expanded to 80 minutes for the Covent Garden Festival, then in 2001 the company decided to present it as a whole evening complete with interval. Rather than restoring all the cuts, Clarke kept the 80-minute version and tacked on an opening and closing sequence, not very long as the present production occupies only 95 minutes of stage time.
The major economy is in the number of performers: eight singer/actors, seven instrumentalists. Only one named part is cut, ship’s carpenter Bob Beckett, less a part than a useful voice in ensembles. The impression is that no entire musical numbers have been excised – certainly hardly any, as Captain Corcoran would say! The development of some of the more extended numbers is curtailed and inevitably choruses don’t happen as choruses, very often replaced by a re-scoring for two or three voices in character. One very pleasing result of this is that two of the less prominent characters make their mark, both splendidly played: Carolyn Allen’s skittishly interfering Hebe and Martin George’s stalwart Bill Bobstay, both extremely silly when the need arises.
At the start, everything is under wraps, including the piano, the exception being a small model of a 19th-century warship which looks as if it has escaped from a bottle. A sailor takes centre stage playing a series of drum rolls which bring on another dozen or 15 Jolly Jack Tars, all saluting like crazy, and then, when the musicians among them strike up an extended version of the Pinafore overture, the remaining eight bustle about setting sails, fixing gangplanks and polishing binnacles.
This opening sequence and the early scene with Little Buttercup are a bit too full of “ooh-ahs”, asides and rough nautical laughter, but this serves its purpose. By the time things settle down, we know this is going to be a high-spirited show – and it is! Jeff Clarke claims rightly that Pinafore has more clear satire on class than any other G&S opera, but its great appeal (apart from the wonderful, very English tunes) is its inspired silliness.
Opera della Luna capture this perfectly and after a while quibbles disappear. We miss the rich sonorities of A British Tar which manage to be simultaneously glorious and self-mocking, but John Lofthouse’s turn as an over-sized Queen Victoria declaiming the lines is a hoot. His day-job is as Dick Deadeye, less grotesque than some, but he supplements that as one of Sir Joseph Porter’s sisters, cousins and aunts, now rationed to one of each.
Louise Crane, last seen in this area some 10 days ago in the Orchestra of Opera North’s G&S concert, is a sympathetic and wickedly funny Little Buttercup, though her gypsy predictions for Captain Corcoran could do with a touch more menace. Georgina Stalbow fields a fine lyric soprano as Josephine as well as seeming to have a lot more fun than most in the role. Lawrence Olsworth-Peter is a sterling Ralph Rackstraw, though at Doncaster his voice sounded constantly under strain. Given his impressive CV in the programme, this was probably a one-off: as Gilbert explains in Utopia Limited, sometimes “a tenor can’t do himself justice.”
Opera della Luna’s approach to G&S can be irreverent, but it is based on deep knowledge and affection for their work – and this is evidenced by the presence in the cast of notable performers from the more conventional Gilbert and Sullivan circuit. In this production, Simon Butteriss and Matthew Siveter could hardly be improved on. Butteriss as Sir Joseph Porter is so attuned to the patter songs that metronomic accuracy becomes irrelevant; his opening When I was a lad, each verse delivered with more drink taken, has the mischievous dignity of a Ronnie Corbett. Captain Corcoran is one of the most interesting parts in early G&S and Siveter gets it all, from the pseudo-modest self-preening to the lyric torments of Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing to the jolly bounceability when things go well – terrific diction, too.
Michael Waldron’s little band underpins the show ably, even if there is a touch too much reliance on the piano in the arrangements – but, having said that, the extensive role for the piccolo is an inspiration which works perfectly.
Reviewed at Cast, Doncaster, on October 17, 2019 | Image: Contributed