Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, York Opera, at York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THREE members of York Opera make important debuts in the company’s latest foray into Gilbert & Sullivan. They contributed significantly to the triumphant success of opening night.
Annabel van Griethuysen’s ingenious production mines a good deal more humour than is usually found in HMS Pinafore. Jack Storey-Hunter gives an extremely assured performance in the role of Ralph Rackstraw. Tim Selman steps up to the rostrum to conduct his first opera with the company.
But there is so much strength in depth in this company that you can virtually guarantee a really satisfying evening, whatever they do. So it is here. Good G & S relies on a sturdy chorus. The ladies – the First Lord of the Admiralty’s ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’ – seem to have welcomed some new blood and sing with immense conviction and presence. They are clearly enjoying themselves.
The men are equally lusty, slightly older hands maybe, but none the worse for wear and all the more credible as hard-bitten tars. An innovation here is a semi-chorus of eight, four ladies, four men, who deliver three sea shanties, including an especially offbeat version of What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?.
The other two shanties are not quite so effective and, for the sake of continuity, one in each of the two acts would be enough. But the idea is excellent. It was typical of a production that goes out of its way not to rely on the traditional ‘business’ that so often dogs Savoy operas. Who has ever seen a sailor chased by a mouse here? Or Rackstraw having soothing cream applied to his wrists after being released from irons? There were countless such instances, most of them witty.
There are many old friends among the principals, none more so than John Soper as Sir Porter. Believe it or not, he has been with this company for more than 50 years, yet his baritone is as firm as ever. He struts his stuff superbly but is not above laughing at himself. When I Was A Lad was hilarious. He catches the eye whenever he appears.
Ian Thomson-Smith is another old hand with the company and his Captain Corcoran – albeit wearing commander’s stripes – does not disappoint. I Am The Captain Of The Pinafore goes with tremendous verve and he is a cheery soul throughout, even when he has to play straight man to Porter.
Jack Storey-Hunter’s Rackstraw announces himself in a firm, confident tenor, declaring his love for Josephine. He is not above re-joining his mates but maintains an admirable manner even when seemingly spurned by his intended. This was a most promising start.
First-night nerves can kick in unexpectedly and Rebecca Smith at first made a restrained Buttercup, but she sustained a perfect West Country brogue – emulated to a degree by the chorus men – and relaxed as the evening progressed.
Alexandra Mather’s Josephine followed a similar course. As the top of her soprano opened out in Act 2, so too did her personality. Both will progress over the five shows.
There are more than useful contributions from Anthony Gardner’s piratical Dick Deadeye and Polina Bielova’s effervescent Hebe, who ends up as Sir Joseph’s bride. Hers is a voice that we shall undoubtedly hear again. Fine cameos from Alex Holland’s bo’sun and Mark Simmonds’ carpenter round out the principals.
Joseph Soper’s permanent set, with poop deck above and behind the quarterdeck, emblazoned with VR insignia, more than serves the purpose. It is backed up in similarly authentic style by Maggie Soper’s costume team.
Amy Carter’s carefully conceived choreography does not always earn the discipline it deserves. Doubtless it will improve with time, but better to cut the numbers and keep it tight than throw everyone into the ring for every dance.
Last, but certainly not least, is Tim Selman’s sizeable orchestra, which includes several established figures including leader Claire Jowett. They have rhythmic zest to burn. Occasionally Selman follows his soloists rather than lead them and tempos sag slightly. Otherwise, he keeps a firm hand on the tiller.
As the nights draw in and temperatures dip, I can think of no better way to warm your spirits than this rousing show. You dare not miss it.
Review by Martin Dreyer