After a year of Brexit-induced strife on Britain’s changed place in the world, it’s still possible to laugh at the sorry saga of “English exceptionalism” which Gilbert and Sullivan highlighted in their third opera HMS Pinafore back in 1878. That national trait was enshrined in the song of the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, whose advice to landlubbers was never go to sea “if you would be rulers of the Queen’s Navy.”
Director Cal McCrystal, of the award-winning comic hit One Man, Two Guv’nors, has brought slapstick comedy to a G&S old favourite that crops up occasionally in school adaptations – my brother Andrew was a winning Ralph Rackstraw in one such production. Gilbert and Sullivan purists may query the director’s textual changes, but apart from a misfire of a visual gag – Sir Joseph’s tottering old lady aunt should be laid to rest – the evening is a cracking success.
McCrystal bombards the audience with laughter, piling on diversions and additional characters. One of the cheekiest adds is the nine-year-old “Midshipmite” (Rufus Bateman on the night I attended) who shadows every step of the Commander of HMS Pinafore, bass-baritone John Savournin’s immaculately uniformed Captain Corcoran. Their sparring culminates in a tap dancing hornpipe involving the whole chorus, dazzlingly choreographed by Lizzi Gee.
Set designer takis pushes the boat out in a display of big spending. The quarterdeck of HMS Pinafore is built on a revolving platform that has the singers running in exhausting circles. Sir Joseph Porter’s multitude of Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts crowd onto deck in a gorgeous colour-pop of crinolines and net. During “He is an Englishman!” aria of the English Tar the irony of Gilbert’s lyrics are reinforced by a visual gag involving a zip wire and two miniature Union Jacks.
The central tale is the oldest one in comic opera – Sir Joseph Porter is a self-deluding old buffer who wants to marry a young girl, the Captain’s daughter Josephine. But there’s a Gilbertian twist – Josephine is a status snob. Though she’s in love with Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw, she disdains him as too low status and resolves to fall in with her father’s social-climbing wishes. A secondary plot bubbles in the background, involving the bumboat woman Little Buttercup, splendidly played by contralto Hilary Summers,who anguishes over a mix-up many years earlier over babies. Veteran comedian Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter KCB First Lord of the Admiralty delivers the key patter song on the Queen’s Nav-ee and struts in a feathered headdress like a turkey looking forward to Christmas.
Making her ENO debut, the Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens has a lovely crystalline tone, ideal ingenue looks, and brings true feeling to her renunciation of love, while fellow ENO Harewood Artist Elgan Llyr Thomas as Ralph Rackstraw has a lyric tenor that melds beautifully in the lovers’ duet. The Orchestra of the English National Opera under Chris Hopkins, Principal Conductor of English Sinfonia, brings out the distinctive nautical air and the lyricism of Sullivan’s score. The show runs in repertoire to 11 December, and is decidedly one to catch if you can.
Conductor: Chris Hopkins.
Director: Cal McCrystal.
Lighting designer: Tim Mitchell.
Choreographer: Lizzi Gee.
Production photograph: Marc Brenner.