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“Never mind the why’s and wherefore’s”

Athenaeum Theatre
03/14/2017 -  & March 15, 17, 18, 22, 2017
Arthur Sullivan & William Schwenck Gilbert: H.M.S. Pinafore
David Gould (The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter), David Roger-Smith (Captain Corcoran), Paul Biencourt (Ralph Rackstraw), Roger Howell (Dick Deadeye), Finn Gilheany (Bill Bobstay), Roland Seidl (Carpenter), Claire Lyon (Josephine), Jodie Debono (Cousin Hebe), Andrea Creighton (Mrs. Cripps, Little Buttercup)
Melbourne Opera Chorus, Raymond Lawrence (Chorus Master), Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Greg Hocking (Conductor)
Robert Ray (Director & Choreographer), Greg Caroll (Designer), Lucy Birkinshaw (Lighting)

(© Melbourne Opera)

Like any G&S worthy of the name, this is an entertainment full of toe-tapping tunes, based on a plot of total silliness. It also has the requisite bitingly sharp social commentary and more than a few opportunities to include local references, political quips and jibes at the “Establishment”. From class distinction to social climbing; from “baby farming” to promotions of talentless politicians “up the ladder”, W. S. Gilbert took aim at many targets of nineteenth century London which still ring very true today.

Melbourne Opera once again prove themselves to be a highly capable, disciplined company which displays much strength in delivering excellent musicality as well as endearing stage presence.

From the first bars of the Overture, Maestro Greg Hocking drove his orchestra at a furious pace with subtle emphases and studied balance. The quality of the sound from a small band of only 35 players punched well above its weight. They consistently maintained a well-rounded and luscious tone while never missing an element of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s multi-layered score. There was some excellent playing from the strings and percussion in particular but it is the holistic nature of this band which gives such a solid base for the other performers.

As with most of the Savoy Operas, H.M.S Pinafore is structured around a versatile and hard-worked chorus. Again, Melbourne Opera deliver...in spades! The men produce a staggering wall of high quality sound; aided perhaps by the small size of the theatre but nonetheless controlled, well-rehearsed and musically precise. Even in the difficult a capella sections, their timing was as accurate as their tone. Before the arrival on stage of the women, we came to expect total commitment from this troupe in every aspect of the production. Not only was every man an actor/comedian in his own right but he was a dancer too in the constant motion and complex stage business devised by Director/Choreographer Robert Ray. The women provided a comparable level of support for the principal action: energetic, totally involved and committed to the action and above all, musically delightful. In all, Melbourne Opera Chorus is a highlight of this production as actors, singers, characters in the plot and astoundingly, a chorus who can really dance!

The design of the production lends itself to the comic nature of the book and lyrics. On a cartoon boat, against a wide blue sky, there is plenty to suggest the tongue-in-cheek as a foil to the dazzlingly opulent costumes. The overall appearance is strikingly bright under sunny skies for the first act and softly lit by moonlight in the second. The design maintains a pleasingly consistent comic book appearance throughout.

Robert Ray’s staging is first rate. Musical numbers meld seamlessly into one another, dialogue is easy and makes excellent use of the highly contrived comedy of the “Oh Gosh, Oh Golly!” school. He has developed each principal character into a star turn and the entire cast delivered impeccably timed, well-rounded interpretations of their character. There was some very strong singing, outstanding and well-balanced ensembles and as with the chorus, lots of very capable dancing.

The men, led by David Rogers-Smith as Captain Corcoran were very strong. His Captain was backed by sterling performances from Finn Gilheany as the endearing and very funny Bosun and Roger Howell taking every opportunity to be dastardly in his portrayal of Dick Deadeye. Inevitably, the characters of Ralph Rackstraw sung by Paul Biencourt and Sir Joseph Porter sung by David Gould will be the measure of the success of the men in the cast. Both artists are superbly strong in both music and dialogue; both are accomplished stage presences and both delivered commendable performances. Mr. Biencourt’s youthful tenor grew in confidence producing a crystalline brightness in his solos and an assured contribution to the ensemble pieces. Mr. Gould’s Admiral is hysterical but never overdone. He prances and preens his way through the big numbers without ever losing touch with the rest of the cast. His performance is well judged, faultlessly timed and absolutely enjoyable.

The principal women gave as good as their male counterparts. As Josephine, Claire Lyon was charming and entirely plausible as the object of Ralph’s devotion. Her strong soprano was light at first but grew to a creditable strength producing a wide ranging dynamic of light and supple tone. As Little Buttercup, Andrea Creighton missed no opportunity to ham it up and to make ample use of her rich mezzo voice. Her singing was among the finest of the night and her characterisation well developed with more than a nod to the contrived silliness of the plot.

This is a strong company production: engagingly staged, entertainingly polished and above all, displaying a total commitment by every member of the cast. Without doubt, Robert Ray’s attempt to produce an “authentic” presentation of what G&S may have been like is a great success. For the company, it shows confidence, commitment and a robust sense of silliness. It deserves strong audience support.

Gregory Pritchard



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