Director: John Savornin
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Libretto: WS Gilbert
Conductor: David Eaton
Charles Court Opera returns to Holland Park with a production of the other leading G&S Nautical Opera after last year’s snitch Pirates of Penzance. A host of household names inspire well-placed confidence in those of us who enjoyed last year’s show – John Savournin is back in the director’s chair and playing a major role on stage, Richard Burkhard retains the role from pompous commander Peter Kirk is back as the romantic lead and Sophie Dicks now takes on a bigger role as Cousin Hebe.
For one of WS Gilbert’s simplest plots, there’s still a lot to do. A modest deckhand (Kirk) loves the captain’s daughter (Savournin). The Queen’s Navy Sovereign, Sir Joseph Porter KCB (Burkhard), would also like to marry her. It sets up a fast-paced, comedic exploration of class and duty (Gilbert’s favorite theme) expressed through a mix of tender ballad-like songs, intricate lyricism and brilliant music.
It’s usually a crowd pleaser, this show. With this production, we can see why – the belly laughs, the frequent applause and the obvious enjoyment the audience takes in the show are all well deserved. There’s little effort to update it and tie it to more modern times, but rests on the charms of the work as written – a good choice. The cast is ideal with very dramatic and very well sung main roles, all skillfully backed by the Opera Holland Park Chorus.
However, it feels like you’re caught between two major things when it comes to striving for perfection.
The room’s acoustic obstacles for this type of work are particularly evident with the spoken sections, with the choir songs particularly suffering. Savournin as the director and performer of Gilbert and Sullivan has an incredibly sure pair of hands. It’s an enjoyable effort, no doubt, but it seems to be in a battle between the physical limitations of the location (beautiful as it is) and the audience’s engagement with the storytelling. When performers speak so loudly and enunciate so clearly to ensure they are heard, a lot of essential nuance and delicacy is lost. Some of the responses from the choir group are like a congregation responding to a preacher, seeming too superficial to matter. It’s small, but it gives momentum. Acoustics come into play again – simply when a performer is not pointed in the right direction or positioned imperfectly in relation to the audience seat they are in, sound and meaning are lost in the porridge. Not ideal in a G&S job where the beauty is often in the lyrics and delivery.
Fortunately, the solo songs scattered throughout are well framed and clear. Savournin, Kirk, and Lilo Evans (as Corcoran, Rackstraw, and Josephine respectively), all have some well-deserved space to make the songs their own. Evans, in particular, manages to extract every drop of pathos from Sorry His Lot Who Loves Too Much without becoming saccharine, and Fair Moon from Savournin, Yours I Sing hits all the right angsty, vulnerable, and stoic spots. As we near the end, the bigger songs with chorus seem to be (thankfully) more finely tuned – the ensemble piece Many Years Ago is near perfect.
David Eaton’s baton punches up the lean orchestra – at times they overwhelm the vocals but are quickly subdued. It all takes place in a vaguely 1930s design – the sisters’, cousins’ and aunts’ tweed suits betray it – which sustains the production, but doesn’t generate much excitement.
Despite the audio issues, it’s a delightful, funny, and touching release. Reviving the patriotism and foibles of the Victorian era is fresh again, and Savournin alongside his colleagues at the Charles Court Opera shows why they have built a reputation as true G&S specialists.
Until August 13, 2022