Review: HMS PINAFORE by Durham Opera Ensemble

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What makes a classic? Can any production of a certain work be a classic merely by virtue of the quality of the work itself, or is it the genius of certain productions which upholds its status?

In this case, it is most certainly the latter. After a two-year absence, Durham Opera Ensemble made a triumphant return to the Sir Thomas Allen Assembly Rooms for a hugely successful run of performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore. Dealing with a basic and seemingly uninteresting plot, as well as an inoffensive Victorian score, it is easy to make a production of Pinafore completely forgettable, which is why it is regarded with disdain by some. However, DOE’s production, produced by Olivia Cleobury, is a shining example of why this opera has become such a classic. This is Gilbert and Sullivan at its side-splitting best: a feast of ebullience with levels of camp-ness and innuendo that seem to have been extracted from the libretto even in places where they seem non-existent. Director deserves huge credit for this, which ensures that the production remains hilarious, despite the boundaries of acceptability having moved out since the late Victorian era.

Despite this appeal to a modern audience, the production retains the opera’s quintessential elements. The slapstick humour, executed with excellent comedic timing by the chorus of sailors, is a reminder of the innocence and good nature of this work. Their terrified adolescent interactions with the overly familiar sisters, cousins and aunts struck a chord with this reviewer, who experienced this terror first-hand when they flirted with members of the audience as they entered from the back of the theatre. However, the greatest credit for comedy value must be given to Matthew Dodd, playing a confused Captain Corcoran, for whom the events of the opera seemed to pass by without him understanding any of it. Even when it turns out that he was swapped at birth and has his captaincy stripped, he accepts this with nothing more than slight bewilderment. His borderline terror at interacting with others, especially his daughter whom he does not understand at all, is a source of several of the funniest moments of the production. His inability to refute the advances of Sir Joseph Porter, who is played by with as much homoeroticism as it is possible to get out of the character, cumulates in Wedmore ending up in Dodd’s arms, impeccably delivering a breathless “Oh, Captain!” to the terrified Corcoran.

DOE’s production, produced by Olivia Cleobury, is a shining example of why this opera has become such a classic. This is Gilbert and Sullivan at its side-splitting best: a feast of ebullience with levels of camp-ness and innuendo that seem to have been extracted from the libretto even in places where they seem non-existent

The musicians involved in this production contributed greatly to the overall performance. The orchestra, conducted by Jude Holloway, played with aplomb, especially the strings who played with accuracy and clarity throughout, despite some difficult fast passages. Occasionally the orchestra overpowered individual singers somewhat and became slightly out of time, particularly in the more energetic sections, however these were always quickly resolved and did not impact the performance. There were also some noteworthy singing performances, chief among which was Ruby Alexander, who gave a virtuosic performance as Josephine, with a wonderful tone of voice and several impressive high notes. also gave an assured vocal performance as Buttercup, singing with the clarity that befits her role as the storyteller in the opera. The chorus, led by chorusmaster Caleb Mock, gave a well-blended and together performance, while still allowing singers to sing to their fullest, as is expected with opera choruses.

What was most endearing about this production was its self-awareness about how silly it is. Pinafore is not a work that should ever be seen as anything but completely ridiculous, and the cast made this abundantly clear. was suitably whimsical as the puppy-eyed lover Ralph Rackstraw, while turned Dick Deadeye into an almost pantomime villain-like character. Recurring jokes and cliches are made so obvious when they are about to happen that we end up laughing at the silliness of it all. This production is a fine example of British humour: using the lofty medium of opera to not really say anything at all, while gently poking fun at unqualified people in positions of power and the class system and revelling in the pointlessness and unnecessary extravagance of the entire undertaking, with jokes about the “Big D” thrown in for good measure.

It is productions like these that maintain a work’s status as a classic, and on the basis of this, one must surely hope that it will not be another two years before we can see what Durham Opera Ensemble will turn its hand to next.

Image credit: Durham Opera Ensemble

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