Director: John Savournin
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Libretto: W.S. Gilbert
Conductor: David Eaton
Charles Court Opera are back in Holland Park with a production of the other top tier nautical G&S opera after last year’s vivid Pirates of Penzance. A host of familiar names inspire well -placed confidence in those of us who enjoyed last year’s show – John Savournin is back in the director’s chair, and takes a major role onstage, Richard Burkhard retains the role of pompous commander, Peter Kirk is back as the romantic lead and Sophie Dicks takes on a more prominent role now as Cousin Hebe.
For one of W.S. Gilbert’s most straightforward plots, there’s still a lot to pack in. A lowly deckhand (Kirk) loves the captain’s (Savournin) daughter. The ruler of the Queen’s navy Sir Joseph Porter KCB (Burkhard) would also like to marry her. This sets up a zippy, comedic exploration of class and (Gilbert’s favourite theme) duty expressed through a mix of tender ballad type songs, complex lyricism and bright music.
It’s generally a crowd pleaser, this show. With this production we can see why – the belly laughs, frequent applause and obvious delight the audience take in the show are all well deserved. There’s little effort to update it and link it to more modern times, but rests on the charms of the work as written – a nice choice. Casting is ideal with the leads putting in strongly dramatic and very well-sung performances, all backed up ably by the Opera Holland Park Chorus.
However, it feels like we’re caught between two major elements when it comes to chasing perfection.
Highlighted especially with the spoken sections, with the chorus songs suffering particularly, are the acoustic hurdles of the venue for this sort of work. Savournin as a director and performer of Gilbert and Sullivan possesses an incredibly safe pair of hands. This is an enjoyable effort, no doubt about it, but it seems he’s in a battle between the physical limitations of the venue (beautiful though it is) and engaging the audience with storytelling. When speaking the performers are projecting so loudly and enunciating so clearly to ensure they’re heard, a lot of essential nuance and delicacy is lost. Some of the chorus group responses are like a congregation answering a preacher, coming across as too perfunctory to carry weight. It’s small, but spikes momentum. The acoustics come into play again – simply when a performer is not facing the right way or positioned imperfectly relative to whatever audience seat one is in, sound and sense is lost in mush. Not ideal in a G&S work where the beauty often lies in the lyrics and delivery.
Thankfully, the solo songs scattered throughout are nicely framed and clear. Savournin, Kirk and Lilo Evans (as Corcoran, Rackstraw and Josephine respectively), all get well deserved space to make the songs their own. Evans, particularly, manages to wring every drop of pathos out of Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well without becoming saccharine, and Savournin’s Fair Moon, to Thee I Sing hits all the right angsty, vulnerable and stoic spots. By the time we near the end, the bigger songs with chorus seem to be (thankfully) more finely tuned – the ensemble piece Many Years Ago is near perfect.
David Eaton’s baton keeps the slimmed down orchestra punchy – at times they overwhelm the vocals but are reigned in swiftly. All this is set in a vaguely 1930s feel design – the tweed suits of the sisters, cousins and aunts give it away – that supports the production, but doesn’t generate much excitement.
Despite the audio issues, it’s a delightful, funny and touching version. Sending up the patriotism and foibles of the Victorian age is made to feel fresh again, and Savournin alongside his Charles Court Opera colleagues show why they’ve built a reputation as true G&S specialists.
Runs until 13 August 2022