Doubtless aiming for the feelgood factor, English National Opera’s first new production since lockdown is HMS Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s guarded 1878 satire on class, social mobility and Englishness, directed by Cal McCrystal and conducted by Chris Hopkins. It also marks the operatic debut of comedian Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter, the admiral and cabinet minister ludicrously unqualified for his job – as much an issue then, it would seem, as it is now. Dennis’s presence might raise eyebrows, but we should remember that he has already appeared in musicals and acted with the RSC. His Sir Joseph is an ineffectual old soak, who believes himself above the egalitarian values he ostensibly professes, and despite interpolated jokes about his not really being an opera singer, he delivers his patter numbers perfectly well.
McCrystal’s staging, however, can be hit and miss. The Victorian setting is maintained, though Gilbert’s dialogue is elaborated to take in references to, among other things, levelling up and cronyism, and also to permit louche innuendos about “bulwarks,” “frigates,” “big topmen” and the like. McCrystal’s fondness for visual comedy allows him to add into the mix both a tottery old lady (Flick Fernando) among Dennis’s retinue – an ageist joke that at times misfires – and an anarchic midshipman, brilliantly played by Rufus Bateman, who is scene-stealing throughout. The ship’s crew go in for tap dancing, nicely choreographed by Lizzi Gee, and there’s a hilarious gag in the middle of For He Is an Englishman, which gloriously punctures its grandiosity. The downside, however, is that in camping up something that already teeters on camp, McCrystal can go over the top: scenes such as Josephine’s (Alexandra Oomens) quiet musings on her love for Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Ralph, for instance, would be more effective played straight.
Musically it’s very fine. Hopkins keeps things elegant, buoyant and witty. Thomas and Oomens are lovely in their duets and arias. As Captain Corcoran, the excellent John Savournin gives us an object lesson in how to do Gilbert and Sullivan, with phrases nicely shaped and words finely pointed. Hilary Summers, with her rich contralto, is his funny, yet touching Little Buttercup, while Marcus Farnsworth’s Bill Bobstay and Ossian Huskinson’s beefcake Bob Becket are luxury casting indeed. The chorus, throwing themselves into the big routines, look and sound as if they are having terrific fun throughout.
HMS Pinafore is at the Coliseum, London, in repertory until 11 December.