Paraphrasing Gilbert..., if this very, very proper critic ever uttered the big, big D, he'd exclaim succinctly "Damned fine show" to sum up the quality of the UNCG Opera Theatre's fall production of Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. There were a few minor slips that did not detract from the rollicking good humor and verve of the November 18 opening-night performance, given in Aycock Auditorium. The chorus of sailors, "cousins and ... aunts" was lively and well prepared, and there were no weaknesses in the cast of mostly young soloists.
The artistic "hats" David Holley wore seemed endless. He was the producer, scene designer, stage director, choreographer, and the conductor! He shared program copy duties with James McClure and supertitle duties with Ted Federle. The bright outline of the ship on the curtain was striking, and the single set, the ship's forecastle, with multiple levels for arraying the action, worked admirably. The blocking of individuals and the chorus was good, and getting the latter to move precisely on the beat was dramatically effective.
The orchestra was unusually small — a string quartet, a double bass, a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, and a percussionist. Among the many fine solos were those by concertmistress Jane York; violist Noah Hock spun "Little Butter Cup" during the Act II prelude. Solos by flutist Tika Douthit, oboist Thomas Pappas, cellist Brian Hodges, and clarinetist Braxton Copeland soared above the fray. Percussionist Braxton Sheroouse will be remembered best for some silent schtick — running a shark's fin along the footlights to frighten the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Distilled, the plot of H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass that Loved a Sailor concerns two men of different social classes, switched in infancy, who are now serving on the same ship. Captain Corcoran wants to marry his daughter to Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., while Ralph, a lowly sailor, is in love with Josephine, the captain's daughter. Meanwhile — "oh remorse" — there is "poor Little Buttercup," who pines for the captain and who harbors "a long-concealèd crime." Acute deference to class — god forbid that anyone "would commit solecisms that society would never pardon"! — has prevented the infatuated couples from revealing their love.
Every word counts in Gilbert & Sullivan, and generally readable supertitles supplemented the crisp and clear diction of all the tars and Sir Joseph's cousins and their aunts. That most of the witty text came through clearly is due to chorus master Michael Dougherty. Prime Minster Churchill has often been falsely credited with a version of the quip that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." (Oscar Wilde may have made the earliest such observation.) It is necessary to clarify the description of Little Buttercup as a Portsmouth Bumboat Woman. The name reflecting its clumsy shape, a bumboat was used to carry provisions from harbors and ports to vessels at anchor.
Melanie Austin Crump brought an even and smooth mezzo-soprano voice and a good sense of timing to the role of poor little Buttercup. Baritone Benjamin Lee's deadpan humor enhanced the vital role of Bill Bobstay, the Boatswain's Mate. Coming across as a sort of grumpy Rigoletto with a refined sense of social position, baritone Neal Sharpe was a hoot as the villainous Able Seaman Dick Deadeye. Perhaps tenor Daniel Ross Hinson was almost, "if you please," too well spoken too early in his portrayal of the love sick Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw. He sang with a warm timbre. "Three cheers, and one cheer more for" Ted Federle as "the hardy Captain" Corcoran. The baritone brought considerable stage presence to the role and preened with pride in his "ancestral timber." As Josephine, Julia Snyder's promising lyric soprano voice with its solid highs embodied her character's conflicts between her sense of class and her heart's desire.
Baritone Robert Well's undertaking of the pivotal role of The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., was a tour de force, an unqualified total triumph! Such perfect diction and projection! What a mobile and infinitely flexible repertory of facial expressions! What perfect comic timing! This was a total performance and the finest by this faculty member I have seen to date. Bravo!
After the sea calms and Captain Corcoran and Rackstraw have exchanged social castes, allowing them to unite with their respective loves, Sir Joseph is usually stuck with one of the more drab cousins. Not so in Holley's production! The role of Cousin Hebe is brief. Based on that short bit, Amber Norris appears to have a fine mezzo-soprano voice, and she is in the Eroica Piano Trio class of glamour. I look forward to hearing her in more extended roles. Baritone Hayden Cedric Dawes sang Bob Becket, a carpenter's mate. Most of that role is part of the ensemble except for the bass line in the a cappella madrigal, "A British Tar." Appearing early in the opening scene in a non-speaking part was young Jonathan Holley, who was dressed like the captain and took the helm. His role was that of the "midshipmite" Tom Tucker.