You can see why this, the first major full-length Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, has become one of Opera della Luna’s most popular productions. Jeff Clarke has arranged the score for five instrumentalists and directed the stage action with equal flair. The action has been updated to the Victorian era and the hard-working cast of ten go to the shipboard antics with a will.
The best singing of the evening comes from Rhona McKail as a Josephine with more than a dash of George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth about her, especially in “Sorry her lot” and “The hours creep on apace” and from Louise Crane as Buttercup, a peddler whose gypsy blood is very much to the fore. Crane also doubles as Sir Joseph’s sister. Another interesting piece of role-sharing is provided by Graham Hoadly as the villainous Dick Deadeye and the equally conniving Porter aunt.
Two performances in one day is taxing for any voice, however well-trained. Trevor Jary’s Ralph managed a high legato in his first aria but otherwise sounded rough and often unfocused. Ian Belsey’s Captain Corcoran provides another show-stopper with “Fair moon, to thee I sing” and in the “Never mind the why and wherefore” trio with some hilarious reprises.
Sir Joseph Porter provides Simon Butteriss – who can probably enunciate Gilbert and Sullivan patter-songs in his sleep – with a delectable cameo of a fussy little autocrat tip-toeing along in shoes just one size too small for his feet and rather more taken with Ralph’s manly beauties than with those of either his intended fiancée or Hebe, the cousin with whom he pairs off for the finale.
On stage throughout, the instrumentalists also partake in the action on deck with Graham Dare’s percussionist especially prominent. This is a company which has created the sort of dramatic ensemble feeling which can send up Savoy opera traditions as well as the two-dimensional naval melodramas which were partly Gilbert’s target and the hackneyed ballad operas and grand opera conventions at which Sullivan aimed his most tuneful fire.