The only summer opera venue in the heart of London proves an excellent setting for Gilbert and Sullivan.
It is a deceptively difficult task for any professional company to pull off Gilbert and Sullivan because it is so easy for any production to fall either side of the tightrope it inevitably walks. On the one hand, these operettas require energy and so it is always a risk that top performers in their pursuit of excellence will leave everything feeling just a little subdued. On the other, it can be all too easy to go for obvious laughs and pay insufficient attention to the works’ subtlety and dry wit.
Opera Holland Park, however, falls into neither trap. As a tented area, designed to maximise on the enjoyment of a long summer’s evening in the park, it provides the perfect setting for such fun material. In addition, its large, spacious but unorthodox shaped stage, does not require the type of heavy or substantial set that the Coliseum would almost certainly demand. This enables the performers themselves to make the evening what it is, with the result that this presentation of HMS Pinafore, far from falling between two stools, offers the best of both worlds in combining professionalism with panache.
This production represents a collaboration with Charles Court Opera. When the same pairing presented The Pirates of Penzance here in 2021 (and in 2020 in reduced and relaxed performances) it represented the first Gilbert and Sullivan that Holland Park had performed in twenty years, but, with the success both have now enjoyed, one wonders if an operetta from this partnership will become a regular feature of each season.
In direct contrast to The Grange Festival’s recent production of The Yeomen of the Guard, where in a far smaller and more enclosed theatre a sturdy and detailed set dominated the performance space, here designer Madeleine Boyd keeps it simple by seeing it comprise little more than a few props. Two cannons sporting flags and some trunks and buckets lie around, but the real cleverness lies in a mast, ropes and rigging being portrayed using the tools of the theatre so that we actually see lighting rigging. The time period would seem to be the Second World War as Mrs Cripps (a highly persuasive Lucy Schaufer) sings ‘I’m called Little Buttercup’ at a microphone with two backing singers, all dressed like The D-Day Darlings.
“Opera Holland Park… provides the perfect setting for such fun material”
Both the male and female choruses contain just six people, although these can increase to seven and nine respectively since some principals sing as a part of them for much of the time. It is good to see all movement and dancing, including routines with mops courtesy of choreographer David Hulston, carried out by these choruses as opposed to trained dancers introduced especially, as this aids the flow and dynamic of the evening. Musical credentials are also strong as the general verve brought to ‘A British tar’ is still founded on a very tight central trio comprising Peter Kirk, Themba Mvula (Bill Bobstay) and Peter Lidbetter (Bob Becket).
The evening is directed by John Savournin who also plays Captain Corcoran, having taken on the same part for English National Opera last autumn and recently sung Sir Richard Cholmondeley in The Grange Festival’s Yeomen. Once again, he proves a master in this repertoire as by being spot on with his gestures, delivery and timing, the laughs naturally follow. Richard Burkhard, with his strong baritone, is a rather more commanding Sir Joseph Porter KCB than most, though Sophie Dicks ensures that Cousin Hebe still makes her mark. This works well because there is actually more opportunity to engage with both the bizarreness and logic of his attitudes (many of which we would heartily agree with today) when they are delivered relatively straight, rather than in an overtly comical fashion. Unsurprisingly, given the current political situation, his declaration ‘Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee!’ in ‘When I was a lad’ also gets a big laugh. Peter Kirk and Llio Evans are splendid as the young lovers Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine, and the performance of ‘Never mind the why and wherefore’ between Savournin, Burkhard and Evans is brilliantly tight as gestures such as the giving of a flower and the showering of confetti are slickly incorporated into it.
Many of the operetta’s subtexts are brought out well through some subtle portrayals. So often Dick Deadeye is played simply for laughs, but Nicholas Crawley’s interpretation really gets the point that, as in Shakespeare and other classical literature, the villain is the cleverest character. He also brings out the tension between Dick as the philosopher who merely tells it how it is, and the villain who delights in endeavouring to uphold an old-fashioned and unjust status quo. More generally, with Savournin changing Corcoran’s accent to a working class one as soon as he is demoted, we really get to engage with Gilbert and Sullivan’s satirical humour. It is one thing to say that those born into privilege find it easier to climb to the top, but in the world this pair have mischievously created things are taken a step further. As soon as it transpires that the Captain was born of lowly stock he is demoted, even though he would still have all the knowledge he had acquired through years of experience, while Ralph Rackstraw who is promoted once it is discovered he was nobly born would presumably have none.
The production suffers most at the big climaxes such as the Finale to Act II. For all the panache that the cast display, it is difficult to ratchet the proceedings up to ‘volume 11’ when small choruses and a large performance area mean that all efforts to do so such as confetti showers tend to get lost. All in all though, the evening does go with a swing thanks in large part to David Eaton’s excellent conducting of the City of London Sinfonia, which sees the pace kept strong and the output tight throughout. The Overture, in particular, becomes a thing of joy in strict musical terms, never mind the senses of anticipation and excitement that it always generates, and the evening that follows certainly lives up to the promise.
• The matinee on 13 August is an Audio-described and Relaxed Performance.
• Opera Holland Park’s 2022 season continues until 28 August. For full details of all events and tickets visit its website.