SULLIVAN HMS Pinafore
‘We’re about to weigh anchor with one of the best-loved comic operas ever,’ announces Tim Brooke-Taylor immediately after the overture of HMS Pinafore, and at precisely the moment we’re supposed to be hearing Gilbert & Sullivan’s rollicking opening chorus. This recording of a concert performance from the 2015 Edinburgh Festival has many fine qualities, and there are any number of practical reasons why a recording wouldn’t necessarily include Gilbert’s spoken dialogue. Brooke-Taylor’s narration is effective enough. But would you really want to hear it every time you listen to the disc?
This isn’t a minor quibble: a recorded opera needs at least to approach a re creation of the dramatic experience, and with its jokey references to Radio 3 and careless pre-empting of some of Gilbert’s best punchlines, the narration repeatedly jolts you out of Gilbert & Sullivan’s world. It’s a major consideration for anyone who’s after more than a souvenir of this specific performance. That’s a shame, because it sounds like everyone involved was having a lot of fun.
Richard Egarr, for example: who knew that he was such an affectionate Savoyard? This isn’t a performance to break speed records but it’s light on its feet, and the Scottish Opera Orchestra respond with warmth and grace. It was clearly one of those occasions where everyone plays off each other, and with a cast like this, the results are never less than engaging – whether it’s the chorus, sighing in response to Elizabeth Watts’s breathless ‘I love you’ as Josephine in the Act 1 finale or the orchestra’s delicious period-appropriate portamentos and Egarr’s easy lilt as Hilary Summers’s Buttercup lays out her wares. Summers is particularly adept at bringing out the darker side of Sullivan’s mock-melodrama, while Watts gives Josephine’s ‘The hours creep apace’ the full Donizetti treatment, to stellar effect.
The men are more variable: Dick Deadeye (Neal Davies) shouldn’t really sound sexier than Ralph Rackstraw. I didn’t think it was possible to say this in G&S, but Toby Spence, as Ralph, is simply too English – which takes some doing alongside the strangulated RP and cheerfully hammy stylings of John Mark Ainsley’s Sir Joseph Porter. Andrew Foster-Williams isn’t the first Captain Corcoran to out-sing his First Lord and crew; his flexible bass-baritone is another one of the set’s real pleasures.
A shipshape Pinafore, then, and aficionados will want to hear it. But that narration prevents it from being a library choice. True, neither Sargent nor Mackerrras includes the dialogue either, but with Sargent you get vintage (if slightly creaky) Savoy style and a cracking Trial by Jury as a coupling. Mackerras delivers a performance of irresistible zip with a once-in-a-lifetime cast and fits it all on one disc. In company like that, Egarr’s ship isn’t scuppered, exactly – but it’s certainly holed beneath the waterline.