Sunday 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – HMS Pinafore, or, Showing London How It's Done (Again)

This concert performance of HMS Pinafore continues two trends of the 2015 Festival. First, like the semi-staged Budapest Figaro it contained more drama than many fully staged operas seen in London this season (the contrast with ENO's dull fully staged Pirates was especially telling). Second, it maintained the music/opera strand of this year's Festival as its strongest element. Altogether it was an enormously fun afternoon at the Usher Hall.

It was sensibly decided, as I gather was also done when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the work at the Proms ten years ago, to substitute a single narrator for the spoken dialogue. Tim Brooke-Taylor performed this role with excellent wit harnessing the best of Gilbert's dialogue to some choice anecdotes (the neat reference to W.H. Smith's other profession was an especially deft touch).

For the sung roles, the Festival assembled a truly luxury cast, all of whom acquitted themselves brilliantly. My pick, just at the head of a classy bunch, was Hilary Summers's Little Buttercup, deploying a deep contralto of a type not too often heard these days. Toby Spence was a ringing Ralph Rackstraw and Barnaby Rea and Gavan Ring gave fine supporting contributions as the two solo sailors (Ring my eagle eye noticed has an upcoming Novice in Billy Budd for Opera North, a performance of which work is always something I look forward to). Elizabeth Watts's Josephine showed a range of emotion soaring out in her lyrical moments and making incisive contributions elsewhere (such as the Act Two Trio). Kitty Whately was luxury casting as Cousin Hebe. Andrew Foster-Williams's Captain Corcoran, Neal Davies's Dick Deadeye and John Mark Ainsley's Sir Joseph rounded out the cast with similar effectiveness. I was especially pleased to hear Davies again who participated in a number of fine performances in the McMaster era.

This strong line-up of soloists was expertly complemented by the Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera all under the direction of Richard Egarr. I think this was the first time I'd heard Egarr in action, and my brother had reported an unsatisfactory previous encounter. Here, there were virtually no problems. Egarr's tempi were well judged – most critically he kept the score bouncing along (important in this repertoire) while also showing a nice sense of dynamics and which moments to add that bit of extra emphasis. Just occasionally I thought I detected some slight uncertainty between podium and chorus, but if so it swiftly passed. Also worthy of note is that, at least from the Upper Circle, Egarr was pretty spot on in his balancing of orchestra and soloists, not always achieved in Usher Hall concert opera.

This was an enormously fun ninety minutes. If these standards can be repeated, the Festival might well benefit from a return visit to this repertoire in future years.

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