Virginia Opera’s ‘Pinafore’: Lively, funny, intelligent

Little Buttercup. (Margaret Gawrysiak)
Little Buttercup (Margaret Gawrysiak) leads the cousins, sisters, aunts, cast and crew of "HMS Pinafore" in a patriotic finale. (Credit: Lucid Frame Productions)

FAIRFAX, Va., December 6, 2014 – The Virginia Opera finally got the full house they deserved last weekend. The Norfolk-based company sailed into the George Mason University Center for the Arts last weekend, docking, alas, for a brief two days to perform Gilbert & Sullivan’s rollicking, ever-popular operetta-satire “H.M.S. Pinafore.

The production was everything any G&S fan could expect, plus a little bit more. The comic silliness was there, particularly in the second act. The political satire got a couple of nice, contemporary tweaks, again in the second act. And the singing, in the main (no pun intended) was first rate. But the value-added factor in this production was its quiet, subtle intelligence, making it a cut above those productions that simply go for the laughs.

Unsurprisingly in the process of this show’s two acts, G&S manage to turn social class, the military hierarchy, and the underpinning of the British government and the mental capacity of its bureaucrats and lackeys squarely on their collective heads. Fortunately, it’s all done with a great sense of fun.

Image from 1899 production of "Pinafore."
This image is from a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company souvenir programme, dated 23 January 1886, during the original a production of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London. This souvenir includes pages with scenes from the earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including this one from H.M.S. Pinafore featuring Sir Joseph Porter, his “sisters, cousins and aunts,” Captain Corcoran and the young “midshipmite.” (Image and text via Wikipedia)

Most G&S fans—a universe that should include everyone—already know the plot of this one, such as it is. Drawing, with a wink-wink nudge-nudge, upon Victorian era fiction potboilers whose outcome often hinged on some surprise patrimonial detail hitherto unknown, “Pinafore’s” predictable, paper-thin plot charts the course of the impossible love-match between Josephine—the lovely daughter of the ship’s captain—and a lowly sailor with the punderful name of Ralph Rackshaw.

British class structure stands squarely in the way of this match, however, in the person of the First Lord of the Admiralty who intends to take Josephine as his own bride.

As it turns out, this blustering stickler for the rules, Sir Joseph Porter—actually modeled on a real British bureaucrat—had never managed to serve in the military for even a single day, rising instead through the ranks of the bureaucracy to become one of the government’s finest paper pushers. This evidently qualified him to head up the British Navy—perhaps reminding us of our own current, mysterious “Ebola Czar,” who lacks even a pre-med degree but has a lot of friends in high places.

On the H.M.S. Pinafore, though—unlike our own recent, rickety ships of state, the U.S.S. Bushcapades or the U.S.S. Obamanation—we do get our expected happy ending after a pair of long-concealed family lineages come to light.

What’s continually astounding about “Pinafore,” first performed in 1878, is that the primary target of its whimsically cynical take at the whys and wherefores of dysfunctional governments has, unfortunately, not been altered one whit. In spite of the quaint costuming and omnipresent jingoism, we can still recognize the same superciliousness, avariciousness, cynicism and lack of intelligence and foresight in today’s Washington, 2014 edition.

Virginia Opera’s latest take on this classic G&S confection was tip-top and first-rate. Not only was its single set—a whimsical recreation of the upper deck of the Pinafore—cartoonishly evocative. Its period costuming was picture perfect as well, a genuine delight in a modern opera world still obsessed with gray, modernist updates of all the old classics.

Better yet, stage director Nicola Bowie, in her Virginia Opera debut, deftly placed her singing crew on the somewhat cramped set to get the voices front and center where they needed to be while also allowing adequate space for a pair of decent mini-dance numbers.

It’s evident she also coached her cast of actor-singers generally to add a bit more humanity and complexity to G&S’ somewhat two-dimensional characters. This enabled the occasional—if fleeting—moral and social dilemmas of the primary characters to shine through in a more personal, intimate way, putting a bit more in the way of human feeling behind the surface satire.

Virginia Opera’s cast of singers was in fine form for their Friday performance of “Pinafore.” Including Saturday’s matinee, this the last stop in the company’s usual Virginia tour circuit, which includes its home at Norfolk, its new nearby venue in Virginia Beach, and its further-flung outposts including Richmond and Fairfax City. Since Fairfax generally hosts the final performances of each opera, there were few if any remaining wrinkles in these performances.

After a buildup by the chorus of sailors (“We Sail the Ocean Blue”) and some notable hints on “Pinafore’s” plot trajectory, Christopher Burchett made his entrance as Captain Corcoran, cutting a fine figure as he nattily interacted with “My gallant crew.” Mr. Burchett’s voice and diction were crisp and accurate, welcome characteristics in this role, which is notable for its patter pieces.

Equally skilled was Margaret Gawrysiak as the buxom Little Buttercup, who makes a living peddling inexpensive wares (and perhaps something else) to the sailors, but also knows a few things the Navy hierarchy doesn’t know.

In fine fettle and voice as well were our romantic leads, Cullen Gandy (Ralph Rackshaw) and Shannon Jennings (the lovely Josephine). Also turning in a funny and surprisingly tuneful performance as Sir Joseph as Jake Gardner whose brief but effective performance as the evil Judge Turpin in Virginia Opera’s recent “Sweeney Todd” we also admired.

Matthew Scolin’s Snidely Whiplash-style impersonation of the nasty Dick Deadeye was right on the money, and Courtney Miller’s brief vocal turn as Sir Joseph’s Cousin Hebe was delightful.

The Virginia Opera chorus in this production sounded good, although they were occasionally a bit faint and their diction was not always precise—a genuine challenge in G&S whose rapid-patter choruses are extraordinarily challenging. (Having attempted to sing one of these while in the chorus of a concert production of “Pirates of Penzance” at Wolf Trap roughly a decade ago, this critic is more than a bit sympathetic, however.)

The Virginia Opera Orchestra was conducted expertly by the company’s new music director Adam Turner, and was perfectly attuned to the singers and chorus as well.

All in all, it was a great way for this company to wrap up its current fall season here in Fairfax. On tap for the second half of the season will be performances of Richard Strauss’ still eerie “Salome” (February 14-15)—an unusual Valentine for area opera aficionados; and Verdi’s beloved tragic opera “La Traviata” on March 21 and 22.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)


This image is from a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company souvenir programme, dated 23 January 1886, during the original a production of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London. This souvenir includes pages with scenes from the earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including this one from H.M.S. Pinafore featuring Sir Joseph Porter, his “sisters, cousins and aunts”, Captain Corcoran and the midshipmite.

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