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18 December 2005 (Australia)  »

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Opera Australia: H.M.S. Pinafore  »

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A very good Pinafore combined with a very, very good Trial
18 November 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

The recording at hand is a film of a production of Sullivan and Gilbert's "HMS Pinafore" in Melbourne – in Australia, a land which usually does very well by Arthur Sullivan's comic operas (and the accompanying libretti by W. S. Gilbert). The cover engages in some commentary regarding the restoration of "Trial by Jury" as the traditional companion piece to Pinafore. That may be as may be, although if I remember correctly it would have been an opener rather than follow Pinafore. In this instance, the reversal of position is judicious.

(I should note that going with the Victorian custom of putting the librettist first – as the "bigger" name – is just silly. Whoever heard of Hammerstein and Rodgers? The composer of musical theatre always has pride of place, so let's put Gilbert where he belongs) The chorus works very well and in general the billed cast is excellent. Richard Alexander does extremely well as Dick Deadeye. His excellent make-up adds to this fine effect. The young lovers are played by Tiffany Speight and David Hobson – she a clear, ringing soprano, he a Broadway-style tenor. They're all right. Collette Mann is cast Little Buttercup – not an entirely happy decision. Primarily, she's a mezzo, not a contralto – producing a number of vocal tones one doesn't expect from Buttercup. Her voice also has a street-gritty sound that goes with the character, I suppose, but doesn't fit the S&G sound. Otherwise, she had a good time and mugs well. Captain Corcoran is played rather straightforwardly by Anthony Warlow, who is in good voice, giving the rôle some gravitas as well as a touch of humor now and then. Playing Sir Joseph Porter is a fine comedian, John Bolton-Wood.

The performance goes off without a hitch, and if it isn't exactly the finest Pinafore ever done, it's right up there. Buttercup is well performed but the higher register just doesn't quite work. Rackstraw's voice is fine, but not the kind of tenor usually associated with a Sullivan & Gilbert operation. The set has a couple of imaginative features associated with the opening and with the arrival of Porter and his female entourage. But otherwise the set is fairly pedestrian – although it's hard to imagine Pinafore staged in any significantly different way without using a set that would look silly or compete for our attention with the production it's supposed to support.

The "Trial By Jury" is a modern-dress production that works because the British legal system has evolved almost not at all since Victorian times – so that the satire is just as sharp. There have been a few infelicitous changes to Gilbert's libretto. Luckily they are minor and pass by quickly.

The production is vigorous, virtually slapstick. The judge finds his way to the stage by wandering through the audience. The jurymen vanish into their box when they kneel to take the oath. There is a great deal of unabashed mugging. It's all very good fun if not Gilbertian orthodoxy.

Hobson again has the tenor lead and does it very well. The fact that his voice isn't Savoyard quality works well here and one could hardly imagine a more effective Edwin. He's opposed by a different soprano, Ali McGregor. Her soprano commands more attention than Speight's and she makes a very sexy Angelina. John Bolton-Wood reappears as the Barrister for the Plaintiff, a rôle he invests with a great sense of fun. The big surprise is Anthony Warlow, who plays the judge. He's scarcely recognizable with the make-up and mugs wonderfully. He plays the role with a fine comic Scottish accent and a fine sense of comic timing. The viewer will have to decide for herself or himself whether Warlow's whole shtick is overdone.

The general effect of this Trial is that it's very funny, very entertaining. It ends the evening's program with a bang after the fine but relatively less frothy Pinafore.

Buying this pairing poses a possibly difficult decision. If all you want is this and a few other Sullivan operas (say, Mikado, Penzance, Iolanthe, Gondoliers), this is a no-brainer. Get it! If you want the whole gaggle of at least the major titles – right through to Ruddigore and Ida – your choice is the Opera World set. This set omits, alas, such treasures as Grand Duke and Utopia Ltd. However, its greatest defect is its strikingly inferior performances of some titles, one of which is its infelicitous Pinafore. You can, luckily, buy the Opera World titles individually, which negates the price advantage of the set. And it poses another problem. If you buy this DVD, you have a fine Trial By Jury. Opera World gives you the now-usual pairing of Trial with the Sullivan's (without Gilbert) witty Cox & Box. So now you have 2 Trials. If you like this piece well enough, that's not a bad thing.


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