The Sinfonia da Camera went light on Friday, Nov. 22, when Ian Hobson led the ensemble in “H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved a Sailor,” one of the three most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.
To call “Pinafore” familiar repertory would be a gross understatement. It is one of the most frequently staged works in history. Last year, Hobson collaborated with director Dawn Harris on a very successful outing of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” and this production was staged in a similar manner. Costumed singers performed at center stage of the Foellinger Great Hall; Hobson led the Sinfonia on stage right; and the chorus sang on risers at stage left.
Such a setup does not allow for much dramatic illusion, but “Pinafore” does not need much illusion. The plot is paper thin, and the resolution of it is laughable, as intended. It is the delightful irony and satire of W. S. Gilbert’s verses, and the unfaded charm of Arthur Sullivan’s music that carries the day.
Dawn Harris’ direction kept the sailors of “Pinafore” as well as the relatives of Sir Joseph Porter, Head of the Queen’s Navy, moving and dancing about in diverting antics. Harris herself played, in droll and witty fashion, “Little Buttercup,” a bumboat woman. Since Champaign-Urbana has no access to oceans or harbors thereof, we need to be told that a “bumboat” brings for sale food and assorted things out to ships in the harbor, a humble but useful occupation.
The admirable cast was headed by Boyd Mackus as Sir Joseph Porter, and his singing of that worthy’s famous patter song was as scintillating as his rapid-fire singing last year as Major General Stanley in “Pirates.”
One of the targets of Gilbert’s satire was the absurdity of landlubbers running Britain’s mighty navy. If we think that controversy is obsolete, we must remember that our chief executive is at odds with our Navy’s admirals over a matter of military justice.
Dennis Jesse, as Captain Corcoran, was pleasantly risible as that oddity ... a naval officer who never curses, he says. By the way, is it not odd that Corcoran, at the end, marries Buttercup, the woman who nursed him as a child? Love can, apparently, not only “level ranks” but also bend chronology.
Benjamin Krumreig was a stout-hearted Ralph Rackstraw, singing with sweet voice about his amorous attraction to Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. Marla Moore played a beguiling Josephine, and, at climactic moments, hit some impressive high notes. What is a G&S plot without a rascally villain, and so Timothy Bostwick as Dick Deadeye growled out impressively his evil utterances. Others in this well-balanced cast were Connor Stout as Bill Bobstay, Geoffrey Schmelzer as Bob Becket, and Caitlin Richardson as Cousin Hebe.
Thereza Lituma’s costumes, particularly Sir Joseph’s splendid get-up and the ladies’ finery, were a treat to the eye.
There is a legend that Queen Victoria declared “We are not amused” in response to Gilbert’s satire about “Her Navy.” Unlike this royal reaction, the Foellinger audience seemed to react with delight to the goings-on, and clapped away with some of the immortal tunes. One detail that amused me: the clean-up crew of sailors left a mop on the deck, in plain sight, as the leader of the “Queen’s Navy” came aboard to inspect. That would be even more shocking than Captain Corcoran’s “Why damme, it’s too bad!”
The voices of the principals sounded as if amplified, however I had problems catching the words. But then, the lyrics to the songs are very well known. The orchestra, vigorously conducted by Hobson, played with élan, and the chorus, as sailors or relatives of Sir Joseph, sang with evident enjoyment.
On Wednesday, the UI Symphony will be conducted by Donald Schleicher in a program with the Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 as the main work. The piano soloist will be Young Whun Kim.
On Thursday, the CU Symphony, Stephen Alltop on the podium, will offer a “Joys of the Season” program in which I count 13 selections, plus the carol singalong. The soloists will be Josefien Stoppelenburg and Carl Alexander, and the Central Illinois Youth Chorus will add their youthful spark and charm. Who knows, even Santa may show up!
John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograph” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.