The first work in Melbourne Opera’s 2017 season is a rollicking production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. This is a comic opera written in 1878 which has since set the standard for the many forms of music theatre that have followed it. From the opening ensemble piece “We Sail the Ocean Blue” sung by a jaunty chorus of sailors, the audience were set for a most enjoyable performance.
The imaginative set design by Greg Carroll made scene changes unnecessary and allowed easy movement of the large cast on the stage. Beautiful Edwardian costumes courtesy of Opera Australia complete the period look.
The story begins on board the HMS Pinafore. The captain’s daughter Josephine is in love with a common sailor Ralph Rackstraw, even though her father Captain Corcoran wants her to marry Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. At first, neither dares tell the other of their feelings, especially as they come from vastly different social ranks. Eventually they declare their love for each other and make plans to elope. And that’s where it all starts to get complicated. Because of course you just know that when you flout social conventions, there is going to be trouble. Enter Dick Dead-eye played with great character by veteran baritone Roger Howell. He’s going to tell Captain Corcoran and ruin everything.
This production has a truly impressive cast. These are singers with some serious pedigrees. I must say that the standard of the Melbourne Opera chorus is very high. This standard continues to the principal cast led by David Gould as Sir Joseph Porter. His renditions of the famous songs “When I Was a Lad” and “I am the Monarch of the Sea” were perfectly delivered with his rich bass voice and hilarious comic timing. The chorus of his sisters, cousins and aunts led by Cousin Hebe, played by soprano Jodie Debono were crowd favourites as they trail behind him everywhere.
Little Buttercup, a dockside vendor, was sung with great warmth and humour by soprano Andrea Creighton. She is physically perfect for the role, her costume beautiful and her voice is simply gorgeous. Captain Corcoran, who is secretly very fond of Little Buttercup, is played by David Rogers-Smith. His mighty tenor voice was somewhat stymied by a cold. Despite this, he soldiered on and gave a very creditable performance. His daughter Josephine was played by soprano Claire Lyon. She played the role very straight as it should be, with all the comedy happening around her. Her voice is very pure and sweet and she sings and dances the part with grace and confidence. Her paramour Ralph Rackstraw was played by tenor Paul Biencourt with just the right amount of humour, physical comedy and dancing.
Director and choreographer Robert Ray has clearly rehearsed his cast meticulously. It is a real pleasure to watch a large cast move as one with just the right degree of levity that this style of theatre demands. And in a long-standing Gilbert & Sullivan tradition, there are modern gags to keep it up to date. It was wonderful to see this Victorian era opera performed in a lovely old Victorian theatre like the Athenaeum. It was terrific to see the orchestra pit full of the thirty strong Melbourne opera orchestra playing with great verve under the baton of maestro Greg Hocking.
This opera has lost none of its power since it was first performed 139 years ago. It’s a story which mocks the class system, and pokes fun at authority figures. Especially when they are elevated to positions far beyond their abilities. It laughs at convention and makes its audience laugh with it.
It is also one of those shows where you leave the theatre humming the infectious melodies. There were children in the audience and I scanned their faces for that look that showed the magic that only live theatre can create. The finales of both acts were thrilling and campy and reminded me of the delight I felt when I saw a Gilbert & Sullivan opera for the first time many years ago. Don’t miss this production; take your children or someone else’s if you don’t have any. Everyone should have the experience of HMS Pinafore in their lives – and the earlier the better.
Editor’s note: Pinafore is at the Athenaeum Theatre March 14 – 18 and at Robert Blackwood Hall on April 22. Details.