Theatre: Vancouver Opera’s HMS Pinafore doesn’t really set sail


A pity that so much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s witty wordplay and genuine comedy was sacrificed in a trendy, didactic rejig

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Vancouver Opera presents HMS Pinafore

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When: May 5 and May 7, 7:30 p.m., and May 8, 2 p.m.

Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 630 Hamilton St., Vancouver.

Tickets and info:

Vancouver Opera returns to business in a big way with the Gilbert and Sullivan classic HMS Pinafore, which opened at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Saturday evening, the first of four scheduled performances.

Though fans are delighted to return to opera live and on stage, it was perhaps asking too much in this topsy-turvy 2021-22 season to expect everything to go without a glitch or two. On Saturday, VO general manager Tom Wright had to announce that the chorus would sing masked; that bow to pandemic safety out of the way, the show did go on.

The extreme popularity of G&S can prove a bit of a straitjacket for companies that want to get beyond the almost sacred conventions of the D’Oyly Carte operettas. VO decided to present a new libretto adaptation of the piece by Canadian writer and comedian JD Derbyshire which puts a decidedly feminist spin on the enterprise.

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One can be totally sure that there will be those who appreciate the more contemporary slant provided by Derbyshire’s adaptation and traditionalists who don’t. Not opposed in principle to the updates, I nonetheless found that the adaptation had its drawbacks, particularly a few very talky bits of exposition in the first act: Perhaps writer Derbyshire’s improvements proved less clever or funny on stage than they seemed on the page.

HMS Pinafore, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, in all its ‘wide’ glory.
HMS Pinafore, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, in all its ‘wide’ glory. Photo by TIM MATHESON

The stalwart VO orchestra was back in good form after a recent tuneup by music director emeritus Jonathan Darlington in an opera-in-concert rendition of Cavalleria rusticana. The chorus, on the other hand, had some rocky moments (perhaps the result of the late in the day decision to mask up). More intrinsically problematic were conductor Rosemary Thomson’s cautious, overly reverent tempi that dampened the sparkle implicit in Sullivan’s tuneful, often Mendelssonian score.

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These caveats notwithstanding, the opportunity to lavish the musical resources of a full opera company on a familiar G&S hit produced satisfying results. The principals were impressive: Lyric baritone Jorell Williams was excellent as the Pinafore’s captain; as his proto-feminist daughter, Caitlin Wood proved an effective ingenue with a light and winsome soprano voice. The part of her would-be swain Ralph Rackstraw was sung by tenor Ernesto Ramierez, displaying a lovely vocal timbre and a real sense of mid-Romantic style.

The two character leads were charged with extra duties. Baritone Peter McGillivray was encouraged to play his part as Sir Joseph Porter with over-the-top abandon; his way with the authentic G&S material was impeccable. As Buttercup, mezzo Megan Latham occupied an expanded role in the story; her fine singing, clear diction and solid stage presence produced one of the highlights of the production.

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Brenna Corner is an intelligent and imaginative stage director, and most of the little touches she dreamed up provided telling detail which enriched the general effect of an attractive staging. All the pity that so much of Pinafore’s witty wordplay and genuine comedy was sacrificed in a trendy, didactic rejig that never really got to sea in full sail.

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