Smooth sailing on H.M.S. Pinafore at Opera Holland Park

With the ‘good ship’ Britannia heading straight towards political and economic icebergs that are all too visible, Opera Holland Park’s offer of smoothing sailing aboard H.M.S. Pinafore, with John Savournin at the helm and Charles Court Opera manning the decks, was very welcome.  A re-run of last year’s cheerful, charming Pirates of Penzance collaboration, this H.M.S. Pinafore is treated with similar affection and warmth by Savournin, his returning ‘regulars’, the OHP Chorus and the creative team.

The production wears its satire lightly.  Very lightly.  It’s not a production that seeks to shine a sharp spotlight on those oh so English indulgences – rampant nationalism, class-obsessed snobbery and the nepotistic advance of the undeserving privileged – that Gilbert and Sullivan both parody and embody.  And, gentle spoofing is certainly preferable to camp high-jinks or anarchic slapstick.  But, given that we can’t hope to recapture the patriotic certainties of May 1878, when Pinafore became the first international G&S hit, and that Britain’s naval supremacy and imperial power are no longer topics ripe for tongue-in-cheek self-mockery, eschewing any contemporary sideswipes does seem a missed opportunity to restore some punch to Gilbert’s rather dated parody.  After all, Sir Joseph’s gleeful confession of ill-deserved advancement would surely make many ears burn in the current Palace of Westminster:

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I 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!

John Savournin as Captain Corcoran and Richard Burkhard as Sir Joseph Porter KCB in H.M.S. Pinafore at Opera Holland Park 2022 © Ali Wright

And, Pinafore isn’t really inherently ‘funny’.  Gilbert’s dialogue is not exactly littered with sparkling one-liners, the puns rarely rising above the Bosun’s response to Ralph’s profession that he “lacks birth” – “you’ve a berth on board this very ship”.  But, if the characters are cardboard and the humour somewhat passé, then, like all G&S’s operettas, Pinafore does have themes – serious themes – that are more universal, and they merit being teased out with a little more bite than was the case here. 

That said, Savournin’s production is good-natured and respectful, and the simplicity of the design and directness of the delivery (so many of Pinafore’s short solos are direct addresses to the audience) are both stylish and charming.  Madeleine Boyd’s sets economically evoke matters maritime and the costumes take us back to the 1940s, all squared shoulders, A-lines and shirtwaist dresses, with hair styled in tight curls and victory rolls.  The scale is fairly small – a chorus of six sailors and six ‘sisters, cousins and aunts’, and a City of London Sinfonia ensemble of seventeen – though the looping runway that extends the stage and embraces the band is put to frequent use, providing a platform for David Hulston’s deftly executed choreography.

John Savournin as Captain Corcoran in H.M.S. Pinafore at Opera Holland Park 2022 © Ali Wright

The racing back and forth, at least in Act 1, does rather reduce the ‘cohesiveness’ of the stage interactions, though – a problem exacerbated by the spaciousness of the canopy-draped auditorium.  And, it fragments the dramatic momentum.  But, perhaps this is an innate challenge given that lots of the songs announce characters to whom we’ve already been ‘introduced’ and thus there’s a lot of standing about for everyone else – something that, along with what to do with the choric echoes, Savournin hasn’t quite solved. 

Act 2 is more successful in both regards and this probably has quite a bit to do with the fact that Savournin’s Captain Corcoran is onstage for pretty much the whole act.  When Savournin embodied the upright naval officer in Cal McCrystal’s staging for ENO nine months ago, I remarked that ‘Savournvin is a stylish Captain, ramrod straight of stance, lyrical of voice, tongue-in-cheek of manner.  He judges the piquancy and playfulness of proceedings perfectly.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the G&S idiom being better discerned and delivered’.  The same is true here, but previously Savournin was a cool counterpoise to McCrystal’s manic physical comedy and gag-fest.  One feels he could make more of a feast of the role in this calmer context, though ‘Fair moon, to thee I sing’ is a beautifully lyrical opening to Act 2 and ‘I am the Captain of the Pinafore’ is crisp and complemented by some sweet crooning from the admiring crew (though their cut-glass accents do not betray their presumably working-class origins).

Richard Burkhard swaps Major-General Stanley’s two-star insignia for Sir Joseph’s five-star epaulettes, and delivers a characteristically slick ‘When I was a lad’, though I’d have liked more arch variation of the verses.  After all, the advice to ‘stick close to your desks and never go to sea,/ And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navee!” is spot-on guidance for any wannabe Tory leader or Prime Minister.

Llio Evans as Josephine and Peter Kirk as Ralph Rackstraw in H.M.S. Pinafore at Opera Holland Park 2022 © Ali Wright

Peter Kirk is a lovable Ralph Rackshaw, his strong tenor soaring earnestly.  Llio Evans captures the girlishness of Josephine but also her growing maturity, blooming with smashing glossiness in her big numbers which are crowned with wonderfully ringing top notes.  I’m not sure that Lucy Schaufer’s wheedling Mrs Cripps grew on me – nor that I was convinced by her introduction aria, ‘I’m called Little Buttercup’, which was presented as a Forces’ Sweetheart ballad rather than the sales pitch it is.  But, Schaufer does capture Buttercup’s playful seductiveness and along with Sophie Dicks’ lively Cousin Hebe injects some zip into proceedings.  Nicholas Crawley is a similarly energised Dick Deadeye, flaunting his warnings with malevolent delight.  Themba Mvula is a booming Boatswain’s mate – less would be more – and Peter Lidbetter an accomplished Bob Becket.

This is an elegant Pinafore, and if one sometimes wishes that conductor David Eaton could whip up a bit more rhythmic zest and that the satiric acerbity was rather sharper, then one welcomes the  balance of sentimentality, warmth and humour that Savournin caringly conjures.

Claire Seymour

Sir Joseph Porter KCB – Richard Burkhard, Captain Corcoran – John Savournin, Ralph Rackstraw – Peter Kirk, Dick Deadeye – Nicholas Crawley, Bill Bobstay (Boatswain’s Mate) – Themba Mvula, Bob Becket – Peter Lidbetter, Josephine – Llio Evans, Cousin Hebe – Sophie Dicks, Mrs Cripps (Little Buttercup) – Lucy Schaufer; Director – John Savournin, Conductor – David Eaton, Designer – Madeleine Boyd, Lighting Designer – Jake Wiltshire, Choreographer – David Hulston, Chorus Master – Dominic Ellis-Peckham, Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia.

Opera Holland Park, London; Tuesday 9th August 2022.

ABOVE: Cast and Chorus of H.M.S. Pinafore at Opera Holland Park 2022 ©. Ali Wright