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John Mark Ainsley The Rt Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty
Elizabeth Watts Josephine, the Captain’s daughter
Toby Spence Ralph Rackstraw, able seaman
Hilary Summers Little Buttercup [Mrs Cripps], a Portsmouth bumboat woman
Neal Davies Dick Deadeye, able seaman
Andrew Foster-Williams Captain Corcoran, commanding HMS Pinafore
Gavan Ring Bill Bobstay, boatswain
Barnaby Rea Bob Becket, boatswain’s mate/carpenter
Kitty Whately Hebe, Sir Joseph’s first cousin
This fantastic live recording from the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival fully captures the wit and fun of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, a burlesque of almost legendary popularity. The cast reads like a 'Who's Who' of the opera world, and the various scenes are set by comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor as the narrator. Prospective listeners take note: this album contains John Mark Ainsley in deliciously oleaginous form.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
The production went on to hold the stage for almost two years. Towards the end of the run there was even a children’s HMS Pinafore, in which all the parts were taken by young girls and boys, that played for several of the matinees each week. (The ‘damme’ interjections coming from the lips of innocent youngsters caused such pain to Lewis Carroll that he never forgave the composer.)
Sullivan had already collaborated with the writer Gilbert on Thespis (1871), Trial by Jury (1875) and The Sorcerer (1877). It was a heaven-made partnership. Temperamentally different—they were never even on Christian-name terms—the two men were like chalk and cheese. Yet their talents complemented each other in the most uncanny way. Sullivan, the first holder of the Mendelssohn Scholarship, had progressed from the Royal Academy of Music to study in Leipzig. On his return, his brilliant score for Shakespeare’s Tempest caused a sensation when it was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1861, and marked the 19-year-old composer out as the new hope of British music. Gradually consolidating his position, he began composing comic operas—or operettas—almost by chance. But it was a fortunate chance, and one by which he discovered the perfect outlet for his astonishing genius and very particular gifts.
Gilbert’s creative career began in less stellar fashion than Sullivan’s. An unsuccessful barrister, he soon left the law to concentrate on writing: jobbing work as a translator of librettos, writing comic plays and pantomimes and contributing regularly to popular light-hearted journals. His celebrated Bab Ballads are mostly products of those early years. When he first worked with Sullivan on Thespis, a piece for which most of the music is now lost, he was certainly one of the rising men in the literary and theatrical world of London.
Riding the success of the early Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, the manager Richard D’Oyly Carte established the Comedy Opera Company with the two men, primarily to stage their joint works. They were now tied into a contract that required them to write new operas virtually on demand, so when something was needed to follow The Sorcerer they simply had to get on with the task. Gilbert’s idea was inspired: a skit on the Royal Navy and the British class system. Like several of his scenarios, it drew on his Bab Ballads, in particular ‘The Bumboat Woman’s Story’, whose Pineapple Poll (the heroine of the Sadler’s Wells ballet for which Charles Mackerras produced his brilliant Sullivan arrangements) became HMS Pinafore’s Little Buttercup.
Sullivan was on the French Riviera for Christmas of 1877 when he received Gilbert’s outline for the new opera. As usual, he put off making a start until pressures became irresistible; but in mid-April he was able to write to his mother, telling her ‘[I am] in the full swing of my new work’. For the five weeks from then until opening night he composed under tremendous pressure, battling with a kidney complaint that often left him insensible with pain. Understandably, he offloaded the task of arranging the Entr’acte to the conductor, Alfred Cellier. The Overture was also entrusted to Cellier, a fine composer in his own right; but it is uncertain whether this was heard at the first performance or introduced a little later.
With HMS Pinafore successfully set on course and the heatwave-induced false start over, fresh troubles began. Some of the backers had fallen out with D’Oyly Carte and they staged a rival production, and even had the audacity to move it to a theatre virtually next door to D’Oyly Carte’s. Across the Atlantic, too, serious mischief was afoot. In New York the opera was filling several theatres, but with questionable productions by unauthorized companies that did not pay a cent in royalties. The London opposition soon wilted (an attempt to make off with the scenery from the Opera Comique in the middle of a performance hardly helped the rivals’ cause). But the American problem persisted. Bold action was required. The authentic HMS Pinafore had to be produced in New York, and so plans were laid to take the production across the Atlantic and wipe out the opposition by the sheer quality of the genuine article. Surprise would be important.
Thus it was amid great secrecy that a group of leading performers from the London cast, accompanied by author and composer, sailed for America in October 1879. The plan worked. The genuine HMS Pinafore took New York by storm and soon D’Oyly Carte companies were touring it throughout the USA. A further—and stunning—blow to the theatrical pirates was dealt by the presentation of the world premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s next opera in New York. So it was that The Pirates of Penzance opened, to tremendous acclaim, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre on New Year’s Eve 1879.
The Americans were impressed, as London audiences had been, by the polish of the HMS Pinafore production. Sullivan worked to the highest musical standards and personally rehearsed the singers and orchestra, appearing on the conductor’s rostrum for the opening performance and many others. Gilbert was a brilliant stage director: his imaginative use of the chorus, in particular, was pioneering and has had a lasting impact on musical theatre.
Accuracy of visual detail was another feature. From the seamen’s uniforms and the ship’s rigging to the formalities of naval drill, everything was finely modelled on the real thing. Stock costumes were certainly not good enough: the HMS Pinafore’s crew were correctly kitted out by a Portsmouth naval tailor. Gilbert himself spent hours aboard HMS Victory and other ships anchored in Portsmouth Harbour, carefully noting details that ensured his theatrical man-o’-war looked, quite literally, ship-shape. This was essential to Gilbert’s dramatic concept, whereby fine-tuned visual authenticity provided a foil to the verbal and narrative absurdities.
With Trial by Jury Gilbert discovered how well gentle mockery of the establishment could work on the musical stage. In HMS Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter, head of the Admiralty, a government department of which he has absolutely no experience, certainly had counterparts in Gladstone’s administration. Indeed, in spite of Gilbert’s denial, Sir Joseph’s rise from humble beginnings to become First Lord of the Admiralty is a clear jibe at W H Smith (founder of the newsagent business), whose career took just such a course.
HMS Pinafore is rich in comic burlesque, sending up theatrical and operatic conventions and styles. The old nautical melodrama, with its impenetrable marine jargon and heroically patriotic Jolly Jack Tar, was a ready target, and one that Gilbert was to use again in Ruddigore. The tongue-in-cheek writing is apparent from the opening chorus right through to the marvellous moment when the crew acclaim their shipmate, Ralph: ‘He is an Englishman!’ Dick Deadeye, too, destined to villainy by name and appearance, provides another dig at melodramatic convention.
The music is equally rich in comic pastiche. The Handelian manner of the Captain’s opening exchanges with his crew is delightfully fatuous, as is the close of his recitative with Buttercup: ‘A plump and pleasing person’. The elopement scene conjures up nocturnal conspiracies from countless Italian operas. But, undoubtedly, the send-up of the big patriotic tune in ‘For he is an Englishman’ is one of the greatest master strokes.
HMS Pinafore remains one of the most frequently performed of the Savoy Operas (the collective name given to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan after the eponymous theatre D’Oyly Carte built to present their works). Indeed, this very British creation has probably been more popular than any with non-English-speaking audiences through translations into Yiddish, Cantonese, Welsh and dozens of other languages. It certainly cemented the creative alliance between Gilbert and Sullivan, who continued writing together until just a few years before the composer’s death in 1900. Theirs was one of the great theatrical partnerships. With HMS Pinafore and the string of masterpieces that followed—among them The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) and The Gondoliers (1889)—they made London in those heyday years the very centre of the operetta world.
David Russell Hulme © 2016
The Captain appears and exchanges compliments with his crew (track 6). He is a popular commander who, in front of his men, shows confidence and stability. Yet when the sailors depart he reveals to Buttercup that he is deeply troubled (track 7). His daughter is being sought in marriage by Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty, but she does not seem to take kindly to the match. After Buttercup’s departure, Josephine arrives and admits her reluctance to be courted by Sir Joseph (track 8). The reason is simple: she is in love with someone else. The object of her affection is a lowly sailor on board HMS Pinafore; but she assures her shocked father that she will not pursue a liaison with one so ignobly born.
Sir Joseph arrives on board, attended by his cousin Hebe and an entourage of adoring sisters, cousins and aunts (tracks 9-11). Proud of his rise from humble office boy to his present exalted position, he relates the stages in his progress (track 12). He then inspects the ship’s company. He finds the Captain’s manner in delivering orders discourteous and says that the expression ‘if you please’ should always accompany instructions to the men: after all, they are any man’s equal—excepting his (track 13).
Sir Joseph’s egalitarian views endear him to the sailors, who sing the glee he has composed to edify the Royal Navy’s lower ranks (track 14). After the crew depart, Josephine comes on deck. She meets Ralph, who has resolved to declare his feelings (track 15). Although he is the sailor of whom she spoke to her father, she forces herself into a show of outrage and disdain. Distracted, Ralph sees suicide as his only course and conveys his resolution to his shipmates and the visiting ladies (track 16). Appalled, they stand back as he raises a pistol to his head.
Suddenly Josephine bursts in and, to avert the impending tragedy, declares her love to Ralph. Given the obstacles to their union, their only course seems to be elopement, and plans are hatched for a flight that very night. There is only one dissenting voice among those present. Dick Deadeye, hated by the crew for his appearance and surly manner, warns of the folly. No one is in any mood for his misanthropic utterances, however, and the high spirits soon return.
Captain Corcoran, on deck, soliloquizes to the moon about his troubles (track 18). Buttercup overhears him and offers a sympathetic ear (track 19). Clearly she is fond of the Captain. But despite his reciprocal feelings, he says that differences in their respective social positions make anything more than friendship out of the question. In response, Buttercup prophesies a change in store for the Captain: with her gypsy blood, she can read destinies. He must be prepared—for things are seldom what they seem.
Sir Joseph, meanwhile, has been pressing his suit on Josephine, but without success. Corcoran, anxious to placate the First Lord, suggests that his daughter may be dazzled by her suitor’s exalted position. He suggests Sir Joseph might fare better if he were to assure Josephine that it is a standing rule of the Admiralty that love levels all ranks. The two men retire as Josephine appears.
Alone, she expresses her misgivings at the irrevocable step she is about to take (track 20). Sir Joseph joins her and, acting on Corcoran’s suggestion, proclaims his belief that love is a platform on which all ranks meet (track 21). That statement, ironically, removes Josephine’s misgivings about her elopement. Sir Joseph, however, unaware of how eloquently he has pleaded his rival’s cause, thinks her positive response a sign in his favour. The Captain, too, is extremely pleased. His hope of a marriage between his daughter and a cabinet minister may, after all, be realized. His elation turns to anger, however, when Dick reveals the plans for the impending elopement (track 22).
The Captain lies in wait, but not for long: soon the lovers, assisted by the crew and Buttercup, appear on deck (track 23). They are about to leave the ship when the Captain steps out from hiding to challenge them (track 24). He is so incensed by Ralph’s presumption that he cannot control his tongue. ‘Why damme, it’s too bad!’, he exclaims, just as Sir Joseph and his relations arrive to investigate the commotion. They are horrified by the bad language. The First Lord dismisses the Captain, in disgrace, to his cabin. When, in turn, he discovers Ralph’s involvement with Josephine, the young sailor is similarly ordered away (track 25).
The dramatic turn of events prompts Buttercup to speak and admit to a deed that has troubled her conscience for many years (track 26). When she was young, she relates, she had been foster mother to two boys, one of lowly birth and the other ‘upper crust’. Somehow she mixed the children up and, until now, had never admitted this terrible error. However, it is now imperative that the truth be told: the well-born baby was Ralph; the Captain was the other. Amazed by this news, Sir Joseph calls for Ralph and Corcoran to be brought before him. Ralph is now dressed in a captain’s uniform and Corcoran wearing the uniform of an able seaman (track 27). With the social tables thus turned, Sir Joseph loses all interest in marriage with Josephine: she is now no more than a humble seaman’s daughter. Instead, he resigns himself to a union with the attentive Hebe. For Ralph and Josephine the reversal removes all obstacles, as it does for able seaman Corcoran and his Little Buttercup.
David Russell Hulme © 2016