We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, November 19, 2023


 Maestro William Remmers and the cast of Utopia Opera's H.M.S. Pinafore

There are two types of people in this world--those that love Gilbert and Sullivan and those who do not know their works. Darlings of the Victorian Age, Arthur Sullivan's tuneful music and W.S. Gilbert's clever lyrics enchanted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, transformed musical theater forever, and inspired countless pirated versions, versions for children, and even a version in Yiddish.

The richness of Sullivan's musical invention has inspired more musical analyses of key changes than we can absorb and Gilbert's satire encompasses the British class system, the patriotism of the British empire, the two-party system, and the conventions of opera. Musical quotations and plot satires abound. As just one example, the switching of babies recalls Verdi's Il Trovatore.

We have no doubt that their work appealed to each of Great Britain's social classes for different reasons, which accounts for their popularity. Indeed, their works offer something for everyone. They originated the use of naturalistic scenery and costumes; engravings from that period are charmingly detailed.

Such sets and costumes were missing from Utopia Opera's production this weekend of H.M.S. Pinafore but the musical values and enthusiastic performances made up for the lack. We do not know any theatrical production off-Broadway that offers equal bang for the buck. Proof of the proverbial pudding could be seen in the full house and rapturous applause of the audience, augmented by a generous quantity of whooping and hollering.

One feature which made us very happy was the projected titles, allowing us to appreciate the extraordinary cleverness of Gilbert's libretto. Certain arias are so famous ("I'm called Little Buttercup" and "I am the Captain of the Pinafore") that we know them by heart; others are less well known but were found to be equally memorable. Minus sets and costumes we were free to focus on the music and the text.

If anyone reading is not familiar with the story, it takes place on a vessel of the Queen's Navy (satirically named after an article of female clothing). The 
Captain (played by renowned interpreter of the role Richard Holmes) has a lovely daughter (Christina Krawec) who he would like to marry off to The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, KCB First Lord of the Admiralty (played by Maestro William Remmers himself). Naturally, the girl is in love with a "common sailor" named Ralph Rackstraw (Jeremy Sivitz) but he is an unsuitable match by virtue of his "lowly social class".

The couple plan to elope but their plan is foiled by the nefarious Dick Deadeye 
(Benjamin Spierman). The deus ex machina is provided by Little Buttercup (Stephanie Feigenbaum). Of course, Jack will have his Jill and everything ends happily.

Every moment of the production was worthwhile but a few scenes stand out, largely involving the rubber-bodied Maestro Remmers who managed to conduct the sizable orchestra and portray Sir Porter simultaneously with the mere addition of a cap. This would suggest a very special rapport with the orchestra and some anticipatory rehearsal. Remmers' delivery of "I am a Monarch of the Sea" was classic; the text refers to one W. H. Smith, a politician who had recently been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty despite having neither military nor nautical experience.

In an atypical arrangement, the 18 members of the orchestra were situated upstage with the singers downstage. The orchestra comprised the usual string quartet plus string bass and a very competent wind section--a. pair of flutes, an oboe, a pair of clarinets, a pair of cornets, a bassoon, a pair of horns, a pair of trombones, and a percussionist.

We enjoyed the chorus of sailors and particularly admired the voices of Henry Horstmann as the Bosun's Mate and Jonathan Fox Powers as the Carpenter's Mate.

The female chorus did a fine job as the "Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts" who accompanied Sir Porter. Some of the funniest moments of the show involved a particularly intrusive Cousin Hebe (Angela Scorese) whom Sir Porter kept trying to silence and dismiss.

Much of the humor comes from watching characters taking themselves seriously in such preposterous circumstances. We can only imagine the delight experienced by the audience in 1878!

The complicated history of this career-making comic opera is fascinating but way too detailed to get into here.  Likewise the strained interaction between Gilbert and Sullivan which was depicted in a highly recommended film a quarter centry ago by Mike Leigh entitled Topsy Turvy.

© meche kroop

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