Gilbert and Sullivan, arranged by Kevin Hocking: H.M.S. Pinafore

Opera Nuova

Directed by Kim Mattice Wanat
Musical Direction by Simon-Marc de Freitas

Ralph: Cam Kneteman
Josephine: Isabel Davis
Sir Joseph Porter: Evan Westfal
Captain Corcoran: Ian Fundytus
Dick Deadeye: Josh Thayer
Buttercup: Robert Herriot

Capitol Theatre, Ford Edmonton Park
Sunday, February 26, 2017

Last week Opera Nuova, at the suggestion of Ford Edmonton Park, added a winter production to its annual activities with a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at the Park’s Capitol Theatre (February 22 – February 26).

Opera Nuova is, of course, best known for its extensive spring/summer program for young opera professionals just starting their careers. Central to that are the productions (four this May and June) in which those young singers take part, and recently the venues have included Fort Edmonton Park.

It was a bold move to add a production in February, but Fort Edmonton’s instincts were right. The production was so successful that Opera Nuova added an extra matinee to accommodate the demand.

It helps, of course, that Gilbert and Sullivan is always popular, and H.M.S. Pinafore especially so. This production, though, wasn’t entirely Gilbert and Sullivan (or, for that matter, entirely H.M.S. Pinafore), because director Kim Mattice Wanat decided to use a very successful adaptation of the opera by the Australian publishing company Essgee Entertainment. Its 1994 version of The Pirates of Penzance was a huge hit, and the top-selling music video in Australian history. It then produced The Mikado in 1996, and H.M.S. Pinafore a year later.

The changes are quite extensive: new dialogue, re-orchestration for a small band, the addition of a couple of well-known songs from other G&S operas, and the considerable development of the character of Dick Deadeye.

Evan Westfal (Sir Joseph Porter), Isabel Davis (Josephine), and Ian Fundytus (Captain Corcoran).
Photo by Nanc Price

Absolute purists may baulk, but much of this works pretty well. It has become customary to use G&S dialogue to make contemporary comments – here including a couple of well-aimed Trump digs – and that makes sense, especially as that’s exactly what Gilbert was doing in the original. The couple of favourite songs from other G&S operas that were inserted into the music were judiciously chosen. Sullivan’s score arranges very easily, and the orchestration here – for a more modern sounding band of piano, keyboards, double bass, and drum kit – didn’t really interfere with the enjoyment of the music. The fairly constant cymbal beat may have got a little wearisome, but only once did the arrangements seem forced: in the 1940s swing style close to Act 1, that seemed to diverge both from the rest of the music, and from the production.

The expansion of the role of Deadeye Dick was more problematic. Essgee’s original purpose was to provide a starring role for a popular Australian actor, and one can see the reasoning. However here, in what was very much an ensemble production, the role seemed incongruous. Baritone Josh Thayer made a brave attempt at carrying off the part, almost if he had strayed from the Pirates of the Caribbean, but he seemed slightly uncertain of the role’s relationship with both the ordinary sailors and the officers, and he was vocally outmatched in this cast.

Almost all that cast were young alumni of Opera Nuova’s training program, and were consistently entertaining, without a weak link. At the Sunday matinee I attended, soprano Isabel Davis perhaps took the vocal honours for a smooth and confident performance, and the most surprising musical moment was the duet between Captain Corcoran, played with a nice touch of bluff naivete by baritone Ian Fundytus, and Buttercup.

For Buttercup was played by Robert Herriot, better known as an opera stage director who has regularly worked for both Opera Nuova and Edmonton Opera. It’s certainly not the first time that the role has been played as a cross-dressing one, but quite why Buttercup should be Captain Corcoran’s brother, and needed to be disguised as a woman, wasn’t really clear, especially as the original works well enough. I can see that in the Australia of the 1990s there might have been a certain frisson in having a kind of Dame Edna of Gilbert and Sullivan, but without any overt gender-bending commentary (or indeed jokes), it did seem a bit odd.

Nonetheless, to hear the Corcoran-Buttercup duet with two male voices was surprisingly effective, and overall Herriot enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the role. The same might be said of the whole production, for it was enormous fun. Mattice Wanat’s direction was fast-paced, making neat use of the relatively small stage (she also designed the simple but effective set), and the chorus, again of mainly local, mainly young singers, was excellent. They also carried off some quite complex dancing, skillfully choreographed by Marie Nychka.

Overall, then, this Opera Nuova production happily met its goals, providing opportunities for local young singers, and a most enjoyable winter’s entertainment for the audiences. Let’s hope this becomes a regular fixture in the Edmonton calendar.
In the meantime, Opera Nuova will be back at Fort Edmonton in the summer with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (directed by Herriot), and G&S purists do not have to wait too long to hear a version of H.M.S. Pinafore that will presumably be closer to the original, for Edmonton Opera are presenting it next year, again directed by Herriot.