Gilbert and Sullivan double bill a delight…..

W.S.GILBERT / ARTHUR SULLIVAN – Trial By Jury / H.M.S.Pinafore

Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra

Music Director – Matthew Ross / Stage Director – Gillian Jerome

Wellington Opera House

Thursday 30th June 2011

“I do my best to satisfy you all” sings Captain Corcoran to the crew of H.M.S.Pinafore – and we in the audience at Wellington ‘s Opera House could well have, at the end of the evening, echoed the crew’s reply, regarding the production, “And with you we’re quite content!” For this was a rollicking good night in the theatre – the stage spectacle entertaining and colourful, and the music elegant and captivating. To be sure, in the wake of previous encounters with this company, one came fully prepared to make certain allowances regarding the quality of the solo singing and fluency of the stage production, but any such discrepancies had little debilitating effect on the evening’s pleasure and delight. Having heard neither “Trial By Jury” nor “Pinafore” for some time, I was delighted to have my enthusiasm for Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s elegant and witty satires reawakened so wholeheartedly.

Pivotal to the success of the evening throughout both productions were chorus and orchestra, and in each case there was a strong and secure focus, with many felicitous touches. This was particularly so in “Trial By Jury” where the choruses are positively Greek-like in character, declaiming as one, but with the added strength and persuasion of numbers, and often interacting with individuals as such themselves. Particularly telling were the jurymen’s rapid mood-swings, ranging from utter besottment with the female plaintiff ‘s allure to savage condemnation of her ex-partner the defendant, depending upon whichever protagonist was in their immediate sights. Both jurymen and spectators in the courtroom were, in fact, splendid in every way, the singing and acting strong and purposeful.

In “Pinafore” which followed, both groups, as sailors on board the ship, and as the First Lord of the Admiralty’s accompanying bevy of “sisters, cousins and aunts”, again relished their roles, though I thought the sailors every now and then too static and deck-bound, needing to respond with more energy to what the music was doing, as with the work’s opening chorus, “We sail the ocean blue”. The First Lord, Sir Joseph Porter’s “sister’s, cousins and aunts” were nicely “contained”, bubbling onto the ship’s deck like eager schoolgirls on a Bank Holiday outing, and amusingly irritating their illustrious benefactor and patron with their attentions. Musically, though, each group put across its music with great vim and conviction, and things came together nicely in places such as the “conspirators” scene, at the end of the first act, with stage movement and vocal energy strongly conveying the scene’s power and purpose – an amusing touch was the unexpected despatching of the rogue sailor Dick Deadeye overboard, with a Goon-Show cry of “He’s fallen in the water!”

Throughout, I was much taken with the work of the music director, Matthew Ross, in a role I hadn’t seen him perform before. Apart from a mix-up during “Pinafore” between stage and pit over Sir Joseph Porter’s pointed hesitations for his refrain, “I thought so little – they rewarded me…” this was a nicely spic-and-span orchestral realization, by turns spirited and sensitive throughout both operettas, the playing so often mirroring the theatrical action aptly and vividly. Ross couldn’t keep the solo voices ideally together during the near-polyphonic strains of “A British Tar…” but in tutti things fairly crackled along. I would have insisted on a bigger NOISE from everybody, on-stage and off with each whiplash disturbance of the lovers’ intended flight, allowing the “Goodness me…..why, what was that?” interjections to have more hushed point and menace. But in general things were beautiful judged and nicely paced, the “For he is an Englishman” having plenty of proper Victorian gravitas (with a touch of colonial humor spicing the comparisons – “…or perhaps Aus-tray-li-yan!” which brought a ripple of laughter from the stalls).

The leading roles in both works were all nicely characterized, one or two vocal insufficiencies hardly mattering in the context of the whole, even if one did long for more honeyed tenor tones in places from both lead tenors, Peter King’s somewhat papery-voiced, if charmingly-acted Defendant, and Christopher Berentson’s effortful but commendably whole-hearted Ralph Rackstraw. And David Skinner’s Learned Judge was also notable more for his compelling stage presence than clearly-focused voice production, though his portrayals by turns of bastion of justice, raconteur and opportunist all rolled into one were amusing and convincing. John Goddard as Captain Corcoran survived an awkward first entrance as a prelude to his “My gallant crew! – good morning!” – which was surely written to be declaimed from the top deck, or at the very least, the quarter-deck, instead of from somebody crowded in on the same level as his crew right from the time he opened his cabin door. He seemed more comfortable with the jollier, more robust aspects of his role, though his understanding of the poignancy of his Serenade to the moon was evident enough.

His rapport with Stephanie Gartrell’s Little Buttercup was heartwarming, to say the least. Hers was a rich and beautifully-delivered assumption, warm and sympathetic as her boat-woman character, but able to suggest by gesture and expression sufficient exotic mystery to make good her prophetic words to the Captain, “There is a change in store for you!”. Their duet “Things are seldom what they seem” was a highlight of the evening. Malinda di Leva’s Josephine was suitably bright-toned of voice and nicely poised of aspect, ready to suggest and activate the character’s depth of feeling beneath the reserve – her wholeheartedness made a marvellous contrast with the attractive kittenish vacuity of Lynley Snelling’s dolly-bird Plaintiff in “Trial”, nicely plausible and beautifully sung. Two tenors who each took to the law, with markedly different outcomes, were Kevin O’Kane, eloquent and pleasing as Counsel for the Plaintiff, and in “Pinafore” Colin Eade as the shamelessly opportunistic First Lord of the Admiralty, a colourful and successful portrayal. Derek Miller also impressed right from the outset with his sonorous tones as the Usher in “Trial” and his gift for characterization without caricature as the unfortunate sailor, Dick Deadeye.

So, with talent enough among the performers to burn, the traditional double-bill was a great success, reminding one of a number of things – the genius of the work’s creators (too readily taken for granted), the renewability of great music (able to enchant at each hearing), the excitement of live performance (with attendant thrills and spills), and the stunning clarity of the Wellington Opera House’s stage acoustic (every word sung with good diction as clear as a bell – such a joy!). The G&S Society can, in my opinion, be proud of their “latest” – moments in time well worth the shared enjoyment!

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