Opera della Luna’s Delightful Pinafore Lunacy at Wilton’s

30/08/2019

Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore: Soloists, chorus and musicians of Opera della Luna / Michael Waldron (piano/musical director). Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 28.8.2019. (JB)

Georgina Stalbow (Josephine) in Opera della Luna’s HMS Pinafore

Production:

Director – Jeff Clarke
Choreographer – Jenny Arnold
Set designer – Graham Wynne
Costume designer – Nigel Howard
Lighting designer – Ian Wilson

Cast:

Little Buttercup – Louise Crane
Bill Bobstay – Martin George
Ralph Rackstraw – Lawrence Olsworth-Peter
Dick Deadeye – John Lofthouse
Captain Cocoran – Matthew Siveter
Josephine – Georgina Stalbow
Hebe, first cousin – Carolyn Allen
Sir Joseph’s sister – Louise Crane
Sir Joseph’s aunt – John Lofthouse
Sir Joseph Porter KCB – Graeme Henderson

Meet The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B.  First Lord of the Admiralty:

When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!

Success leads to success, even as a Parliamentarian:

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament,
I always voted at my party’s call,
And never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!

Arthur Sullivan reduced his equally witty music to a whisper, so that Gilbert’s words may be clearly heard. But his role as accompanist was wrongly perceived, according to outside observers. Nevertheless, it did lead to a major dispute between the two great masters.  This is the subject of Mike Leigh’s excellent film, Topsy-Turvy, which deals with the period leading up to the opening night of The Mikado. Jim Broadbent plays Gilbert with great aplomb, worthy of Oscar nomination, though it is said the actor had no interest in such honours. Now available on DVD, this is Mike Leigh’s most meticulously researched movie and should not be missed by anyone interested.

Comedy had its origin in Classical Greece, only some five years after its more respectable sister, Tragedy. Aristophanes 450-388 BCE was its undisputed Master. But it takes courage, imagination and insight to to stage the Master’s work following the ‘editing’ and even the wholesale destruction of some plays by those terrible spoilsports, the Victorians. Their problem was the extreme vulgarity and lavatory humour of the Master’s plays. And even W S Gilbert had to wait until the Queen’s son came to the throne before he got his knighthood!

Opera della Luna has done away with all that Victorian bullshit – Aristophanes would have loved that word, had it been available in ancient Athens. When Sir Joseph arrives on board HMS Pinafore he is seasick. Huge applause and laughter from the packed audience. But that would have not been enough for Aristophanes: he would have had the Admiral pissing on the audience. I’ve just checked to see if I’m allowed to write that word. And I am: the OED tells me it’s vulgar slang with origins in Middle English and goes on to list some useful piss phrases. Two laughs for the price of one there.

But would you have ever guessed that Gilbert’s wit could have been prophetic? – I always voted at my party’s call / And never thought of thinking for myself at all. Was there ever a better highlighting of our present-day parliamentarians, blocked in the Brexit farce? Journalist and academic, Fintan O’Toole, has drawn attention to this pantomime, showing how Brexit is entirely an English creation to punish the Celts (Scottish, Welsh and Irish) and if allowed to continue, will result in the United Kingdom being Disunited, and with the Celts united in Europe. It all sounds like a rather good Gilbertian joke.

Opera della Luna have gone better. In the handsomely produced programme there is a leaflet inviting audience members to become a Lunatic. (La luna in Italian is the moon.) I see it costs £25 to become a Lunatic, £60 for a Certified Lunatic and £100 for a Committed Lunatic and £???? as a Complete Lunatic. I hope they have extended this opportunity to Members of the UK Parliament.  They then ought to be inundated with subscriptions.

Most of the audience was young middle-age, between thirty and fifty.

There is a remarkable spontaneity in the company’s performance, both in the music and the staging. The pleasure is in the vitality – theirs, as well as ours as receivers. They stop short of all together now (the Music Hall’s calling card) but the audience certainly feel and participate in that spontaneity. Wilton’s is their ideal venue.

The plot of HMS Pinafore is lifted straight out of Aristophanes. Wilde used the same plot in The Importance of Being Earnest. It turns on mistaken and unsuspected identity, whereby a nursemaid, accidentally or otherwise, confuses two babies in her care, so that in the end, the presumed hero of the story becomes the villain and the villain the hero. In Earnest it’s Miss Prism, Gwendolyn’s tutor, who swops the babies; in Pinafore it’s Mrs Cripps (Little Buttercup), ‘a Portsmouth Bumboat Woman’ who bungles the offspring. Gilbert would use the plot again for The Gondoliers. 

Musical Director, Michael Waldron, keeps the show bristling from the piano with dazzling rhythmic life. He’s greatly aided and abetted by a band of five (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, percussion) presumably using Mr Waldron’s instrumentations. I only missed a trumpet with mutes, to give it Music Hall authenticity.

Jenny Arnold’s choreography also breathed the life of authentic Music Hall fun. Audiences these days instantly recall the silent movies of Chaplin when they see these comic steps.  Both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin had learned their art in Music Halls before they (jointly) crossed the Ocean and conquered Hollywood.

Graham Wynne has gone for some realism combined with clownish circus in his sets: nineteenth century, but something tells me that Graham will not be voting Brexit. Like the music, the sets are also shown with some debt to classical harmony. While Nigel Howard’s costumes are firmly aimed at wider, still and wider, shall thy bounds be met. He seems to have had as much fun in creating Sir Joseph’s aunt’s costume as John Lofthouse had playing aunt; almost as much fun as he gave in also playing Dick Deadeye.

In this telling of the Pinafore tale, there is only a total of three in the chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts, not the entire women’s chorus which Sullivan called for. But the reduction adds charm and poise to the show, not to mention intimacy and a touch of unexpected naughtiness. Queen Victoria would not have been amused. That gives us another two laughs for the price of one. Carolyn Allen makes the most of Hebe, Sir Joseph’s first cousin, while you certainly wouldn’t want to meet Louise Crane on a dark night when she’s Sir Joseph’s sister.

Lawrence Olsworth-Peter has some of the right qualifications for Ralph Rackstraw, able seaman, and hero of the evening. His dancing is outstandingly good, precise and Chaplinesque, and he is handsome too. His voice is not enormous, but that is fine in this small space. But surprisingly he sounds more at home in the dramatic passages than the pure lyrical passages. He somehow made a drama out of his first ballad, A maiden fair to see, which rather sacrifices the golden lyricism which Sullivan hands him. He conveyed more wrath than remorse in his Act I duet with Josephine. But his diction is to be praised except in the lower registers. He would be a fine singer indeed if he could rebalance his voice registers. His contributions to the Glee – A British tar is a soaring soul – stood out above others with ringing conviction. Just a pity he didn’t take more of the advice of which he was singing: this should be his customary attitude.

Pinafore was only the third collaboration of Sullivan with Gilbert. In it he hands Josephine a stop-the-show aria to end all all stop-the-show arias. He never made that mistake again. Operetta singers are usually not singers of grand opera. (It once fell to me to coach a fourteen year old girl in this role in a school performance; I gave her all the tricks in the book to overcome these vocal demands and she astonished me, herself, and her parents on how accomplished she became in these impossible requirements.) Georgina Stalbow confronts her ordeal with admirable skill, especially in that climax, Oh god of love, and god of reason say, Which of you twain shall my poor heart obey! A deserved ovation followed. There then follows a trio with Sir Joseph and her father, the Captain. And what a joy when she is given to sing, Never mind the why and wherefore / Love can level ranks, and therefore, I admit the jurisdiction; / Ably have you played your part. This was the joy of coming through the battle unscathed. Applause all three.

Captain Corcoran is a curious kind of baddy, and as he proceeded writing the part, Gilbert found himself in conflict with Aristophanes’s requirement. This shows most at the opening of Act II, where the Captain is on deck ruminating on a song to the moon. Matthew Siveter was not entirely comfortable delivering this lyricism. A pity. This song can often be a highlight of the show. But Mr Siveter was ideal with all the vocal comic drama which is what the rest of this role is all about.

I have written in this report what I intended to avoid: looking at some of the detail of the individual contributions. But the whole is much greater than the parts with Opera della Luna, not least because of how Founder and Stage Director, Jeff Clarke, weaves together with a touch of magic, these talented performers. The perfect ensemble show, if ever there was one. This year they are celebrating is their 25th anniversary. And I raise my glass to them. Long may they flourish.

If you don’t miss want to miss this show, then please hurry as HMS Pinafore plays at Wilton’s Music Hall only until Saturday 31st August.

Jack Buckley

For more about Opera della Luna click here.

To watch the HMS Pinafore trailer on YouTube click here.

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