SULLIVAN H.M.S. Pinafore • Grant Harville, cond; Andy Abrams (Sir Joseph Porter); Ryan Thorn (Captain Corcoran); Heath Rush (Ralph Rackstraw); Dean Messerly (Dick Deadeye); Amalia Goldberg (Josephine); Molly Spivey (Buttercup); Madison Savoyards O and Ch • MADISON SAVOYARDS (DVD: 103:35) Live: Madison 7/31/2010
The Madison Savoyards are back with a DVD of their 2010 production. It’s HMS Pinafore, one of the most popular G&S operas, and one where sheer vitality and tunefulness can do a lot to compensate for the lack of resources available to amateur and semi-professional performing companies. This particular production has more than just the words and music of the greatest creative team in the English language going for itself, however.
First, to the direction by Terry Kiss Frank. She blocks effectively, moving her groups about in a fashion that not only uses the stage area well, but gives reason to actions—if not with the uniformity of gesture or focused movement that professional choruses provide. There are a few effective humorous touches in this production, of which the most impressive point to possible relationship parallels between Porter and Hebe on the one hand, and the Mikado and Katisha on the other, based on their respective entrance duets. This way of casting Hebe as a fussy, friendly, but willful character makes her certainly stand out better than the role’s usual bland treatment as spokesperson for the women’s chorus.
As for the scenery, in place of the usual balanced view of the main deck from the stern with one flat performing area (and possibly a second, the forecastle, above the ship’s head), we get a ship seen from the side, with a smaller raised deck area for the wheel, accessible by stairs, and a short pole for a stylized crow’s nest. This supplies a greater vertical element than is typical, but lacks depth of stage. Points for creativity, though; good use is made of it throughout the performance. As for the costuming, I get that these sailors are wearing a series of varied, authentic, and rather plain outfits, but not why the upper-class cousins, sisters, and aunts are dressed in sober middle-class clothes instead of upper-class belles-on-a-picnic dresses—as befits both their airhead words and Adolphe Adam-like entry orchestral music.
On to the cast. Heath Rush is a fine Ralph Rackstraw, and vocally, one of the better ones I’ve heard over the years. I could wish he’d inflect his phrasing with more variety, but the sound is well focused, breath support solid, the range good, and his instincts sensible. He doesn’t naturally look the part, nor does his shapeless costume help, but he acts naturally and to the point.
As much can be said for Ryan Thorn. His voice is a pleasantly resonant baritone, his acting ability competent. I have no reservations over his youth—after all, Gilbert blithely uses anomalies of age repeatedly in Pinafore to score satirical points. Thorn’s manner and bearing might be thought too elegant for the decidedly middle-class Corcoran and his middle-class morality, but again, it works in context, despite being nonstandard.
I’ve also no reservations in praising Andy Abrams’s doddering Sir Joseph Porter. Whether singing and enunciating clearly in an attractive, light baritone, or endowing his spoken part with a zest and childlike expressiveness that rivets attention, it is a distinctive assumption, once again avoiding the expected stereotype.
However, Dean Messerly is out of his element as Dick Deadeye, with just a raised shoulder for visual effect, and an uninventive approach to character. He has the musical notes for the role, but the voice is too small, and he lacks bass resonance.
On the distaff side, Molly Spivey clearly knows the role of Buttercup well, to judge from her acting, but again the voice carries poorly, at least as caught in this performance, and has little of the matronly tone one expects for the part.
Amalia Goldberg sings “Sorry Her Lot” pleasantly, though not with much evidence of shading or a willingness to spin out the vocal line. I don’t find her inexpressive, but more could have been done along these lines in both her solos. She acts well, however, as does Gail Becker Koppa, who supplies a rich sound as Sir Joseph’s over-attentive, mothering first cousin Hebe.
The orchestra under Grant Harville is sometimes ragged but always competent, with some good solo playing. There’s a marked lack of snap to the rhythms, and some numbers are significantly slower than in most productions I’ve heard and seen over the years. The sound makes all this abundantly clear, as the orchestra is favored considerably over the soloists. There are also occasional fades as performers move while singing, though volume overall is good, and a marked advance over the last two series releases.
The visual proceedings are handled well, using a single camera angled down from several rows back in the audience, and to one side. I wish some effort had been made to catch the occasional close-up, but the action is always followed—as well it should be.
In short, this is an enjoyable HMS Pinafore, with some memorable assumptions (especially Sir Joseph) and extremely able direction, compromised by poor sound recording and a few less-effective performances. It would certainly serve as an excellent souvenir for anybody who saw this production live, and of the three Madison Savoyard DVDs I’ve reviewed to date, is the best overall. The average G&S fan would want to look elsewhere for a first video version, but the die-hard Savoyard can find much to savor here. It is available from madisonsavoyards.org, where several of the company’s other previous seasons’ productions are available on DVD and CD, too. Barry Brenesal
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:1 (Sept/Oct 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.