United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (18) –Gilbert & Sullivan, HMS Pinafore (concert performance): Scottish Opera, Richard Egarr (conductor), Usher Hall, 23.8.2015. (SRT)
Sir Joseph Porter – John Mark Ainsley
Captain Corcoran – Andrew Foster-Williams
Ralph Rackstraw – Toby Spence
Dick Deadeye – Neal Davies
Josephine – Elizabeth Watts
Little Buttercup – Hilary Summers
Narrator – Tim Brooke-Taylor
No mistake, this is a luxury cast for Gilbert and Sullivan, and most of them took to it very well indeed. Toby Spence and Elizabeth Watts were clearly having a whale of a time as the young lovers, but they allowed their top-notch vocal colour to shine through at the same time, Spence golden and impulsive, Watts bright and gleaming, albeit not as comfortable with the words in the first act. Andrew Foster-Williams was best of all as Captain Corcoran, vigorous and clear with a beautiful vocal tone but brilliant diction, too. Hilary Summers seemed to be channelling Dame Clara Butt as Buttercup, but she did so very well, and Neal Davies was a convincingly black Deadeye, though a concert performance reveals how little Deadeye actually sings. John Mark Ainsley was enjoying himself rather too much, however, hamming up his comedy and missing some of the notes in the process, doing his best to obscure the fact that the part is simply too low for him.
Tim Brooke-Taylor as narrator filled in the gaps, but this was a mixed success with some rather smug in-jokes, and it was clumsy that the conductor had to bring him in for many of his cues. Surely a slimmed-down version of the dialogue would have been more effective?
Top marks go to conductor Richard Egarr, however, in repertoire that is far from his home territory, but which he clearly loves. Every bar of the score came over with affection and clarity, and was as light as the wind whipping through the rigging. He worked wonders with the orchestra, who sounded utterly rejuvenated, and the brass and winds were so clean and precise as to sound like Rossini. The chorus, too, were excellent, though uncredited in the programme. I presume they were freelancers, because the “chorus of Scottish Opera” named in the notes ceased to exist years ago.
So this was an afternoon of musical quality and, importantly, lots of fun; but I remain very uneasy about Scottish Opera doing repertoire like this. There are plenty of companies out there, often amateur, who can do a magnificent job of Gilbert and Sullivan, but precious few who could have a go at Puccini, Verdi, Massenet or Strauss. Scottish Opera should be concentrating on that sort of repertoire, the kind of which, frankly, we are fairly starved in Scotland outside of August. It’s pretty ludicrous that G&S was the sole Edinburgh Festival contribution of Scotland’s alleged national opera company, and it worries me that, in 2015-16 as in 2012-13, 25% of their main-stage season repertoire is a Gilbert and Sullivan piece. Scottish Opera needs to end their G&S spell and get back to the core repertoire for which they were founded.