Rival productions of Gilbert & Sullivan are a good thing for audiences, and not just because the more the merrier. Charles Court Opera (whose co-production with Opera Holland Park this is) has a joyous track record of rethinking the Savoy operas without betraying their origins, but their previous, pocket-sized staging of HMS Pinafore seems quaint in comparison with this new account. Why? Possibly because English National Opera recently mounted an epic staging of their own – with CCO’s artistic director John Savournin as Captain Corcoran.
Let’s not re-review that ENO show. It had glories, gusto, misfires and Les Dennis. This week’s end-of-term romp at OHP is less ambitious than that but way more satisfying, not least thanks to its ideal clutch of central performances. It’s a risky business to describe comic nuance or timing, so please take my word that these qualities were as pitch-perfect as the vocal prowess on display. As a polished evening of comic swagger it even eclipses last year’s jolly-rogering Pirates of Penzance. The choreography is wittier, ensemble work is tighter and, most importantly, everyone involved is on the same page. And Captain Corcoran? John Savournin again, so deft with the material that he can drop a double-take into a semi-quaver.
The ubiquitous singer-director played the Pirate King last year and several other alumni from that show also reappear in Pinafore. The wonderfully plangent tenor Peter Kirk graduates from Frederic to Ralph Rackstraw (essentially the same character, frankly) while Sir Joseph Porter is given the Rolls-Royce treatment by the multi-talented Richard Burkhard, a versatile actor of dramatic roles who can, off-season, punch out a patter song with aplomb. The audience roared at his newly relevant parliamentary lyrics ("I always voted at my party's call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all") as he danced jigs and crackled out the spoken repartee. Marvellous.
As "Little Buttercup", the maid of all work who holds the key to the opera’s mystery (such as it is), OHP have pushed the boat out and hired mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer. Her scenes are blissful: exquisitely sung, perfectly enunciated and genuinely touching. Add Llio Evans as an unsimpering, Cunégonde-like Josephine, Nicholas Crawley as the grotesque Dick Deadeye, Themba Mvula as a personable Billy Bobstay and the splendid OHP Chorus as various sisters, cousins and aunts, and the show has everything.