For a company that was once pronounced dead and buried, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. is remarkably fresh and frisky in this utterly beguiling “H.M.S. Pinafore” (or “The Lass That Loved a Sailor”). As part of this year’s annual New Haven-based Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas, the historic organization and keeper of the Gilbert & Sullivan flame is making its first U.S. appearance in nearly 20 years, and it sent the opening night audience at the Shubert Performing Arts Center into paroxysms of delight. Crisp, thoroughly good-humored and musically impeccable, the D’Oyly Carte production proves that when lovingly and skillfully handled, “traditional” G&S stagings can still be vibrantly alive.
With the passing of the years it becomes clearer and clearer that G&S were among the first purveyors of elements of camp along with their spoofing and skewering of Italian opera and such very English peccadilloes as rampant nationalism and snobbish class consciousness.
But director Martin Duncan knows just how to walk the tightrope without toppling over into trashy campiness. He and his choreographer Lindsay Dolan and set and costume designer Tim Hatley, along with their first-rate cast, have done a lovely job of presenting the operetta’s music and lyrics as affectionately and as good-naturedly as possible.
In the pit were 21 members of the New Haven-based Orchestra New England who, under the alert baton of music director Richard Balcombe, played with both elegance and rhythmic zest. Another 21 performers, this time on stage, made up the wonderfully rich-voiced choruses of strapping, tapping sailors and Sir Joseph’s sisters, cousins and aunts.
And all nine leads were just terrific, projecting Gilbert’s words with the utmost clarity. Adding tremendously to the enjoyment of this production was the fact that it wasn’t miked.
Hatley provided an enchanting painted front drop and a dazzling and adaptable blue-and-white painted shipboard set in which the operetta unfolds. He also designed some terrifically amusing period costumes, not least those for the sisters, cousins and aunts that include outrageously befeathered hats.
As Buttercup, Jill Pert was deliciously ripe and fruity, complete with deep chesty tones, and Alison Rae Jones was a deftly delightful soprano Josephine. Her Ralph (Rafe) Rackstraw, Joseph Shovelton, had exactly the right light, soaring tenor voice, adding to it a regional accent (Yorkshire?).
Royce Mills and Tom McVeigh were thoroughly entertaining as Sir Joseph and Captain Corcoran, not least when negotiating their patter songs, and Martin Nelson was just right as a not-too-dreadful Dick Deadeye. Cameos from Louise Crane as Hebe, Stephen Davis as the boatswain and Carl Donohue as the carpenter added nifty notes to the production, while the choruses shined throughout.
Until now, the D’Oyly Carte had seemed to be surpassed by splendid non-traditional stagings of G&S operettas such as those from Canada’s Stratford Festival under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie and later Brian Macdonald.
This “H.M.S. Pinafore” proves that at the age of 125 there’s still plenty of life in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. and its traditions.