Opera review: HMS Pinafore, G&S Fest

Set sail for more Gilbert and Sullivan fun on the high seas with State Opera South Australia and the ASO.

Adelaide audiences have been treated to an absolute smorgasbord of Gilbert and Sullivan during the inaugural G&S Fest celebrating the founding fathers of British comic opera.

This event is the first of its kind to be staged outside the UK and is very much the brainchild of State Opera SA’s artistic director Stuart Maunder. Along with oversight of the entire Festival, Maunder is also directing three productions: The Pirates of Penzance, Trial by Jury and H.M.S. Pinafore. These are running simultaneously and many of the cast have roles across different productions – certainly a challenge in itself.

This is a snappy little H.M.S. Pinafore that veritably romps along. Also known as The Lass that Loved a Sailor, this is a love story about class and a comedy of manners sent to sea.

The grand opening gesture of a sky-high seagull holding up the H.M.S. Pinafore bunting alerts the audience that we may be in for something of a Pythonesque production. And to some extent it delivers, with lads and lasses and seafaring silliness aplenty, though there’s still the social satire that made Gilbert and Sullivan rather more controversial back in the day than they are now. Indeed, the lampooning of the First Lord of the Admiralty at the heart of Gilbert’s libretto made Pinafore such a hit in 1878 that it sustained an opening season of over 700 performances.

Today’s audiences are still captivated by the witty libretto and entranced by the memorable music, especially when it’s brought to life with the charm and humour of this production. A little more low-key, perhaps, than The Pirates of Penzance, this is still a jolly jape with a toe-tapping score.

Down in the pit, the players of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra keep up a sharp pace under conductor James Pratt. The opening overture is fulsome and serves as an enticing appetiser to the action.

Jeremy Kleeman gives a fine performance as Captain Corcoran, even making a surprise appearance in the dress circle balcony. He has a lovely smooth voice and an engaging stage presence.

Douglas McNicol, playing the Major General in Pirates, is equally impressive here as Able Seaman Dick Deadeye, complete with eye-patch and a broad Scots accent.

The very talented Antoinette Halloran steals every scene with her high-energy characterisation of Little Buttercup. Her singing is beautifully on form, but it’s her powerful personality that resonates throughout the show.

Adelaide’s own opera star Jessica Dean plays Josephine with a good balance of coquette and minx. She may look demure, but Dean’s crisp clear voice leaves no doubt that this is a young woman who knows what she wants.

Ben Mingay, playing the Pirate King on alternate nights, is almost unrecognisable here as the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter. He’s the toff about town with a clear penchant for fine whisky, long lunches and sailors in tight trousers. Mingay’s extensive musical theatre experience shines through here as he plays up to the role and charms the adoring audience. And all credit to director Stuart Maunder for striking the right balance here – yes, this is campy comedy, but it still respects the soul of Gilbert and Sullivan. It could easily go too far in less experienced hands.

Read: Opera review: The Pirates of Penzance, G&S Fest

Once again, the State Opera Chorus are in fine voice and really do carry Pinafore along beautifully with their lusty vocals and flirtatious acting. The big, choreographed pieces use the intimate stage to full advantage, complemented by Roger Kirk’s lovely period costumes. The Admiral’s many ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’ are especially delightful. The entire Chorus look like they’re loving every moment and that’s very appealing, so we the audience love it too.

The set design by Richard Roberts is minimal – one could say it’s really a semi-staged production – but still highly effective. There is a vaudevillian aesthetic here that’s really very engaging. There are two more opportunities to set sail in H.M.S. Pinafore, so make haste to book your berth now.

H.M.S. Pinafore
Words by WS Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
State Opera SA with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: $30 – $140

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Until 20 May.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.