Love and rank
“I am the monarch of the sea/The ruler of the Queen’s Navy,” boasts the shamelessly pompous Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter (Chad Cornwell) in H.M.S. Pinafore, a classic British comic opera that merrily skewers the pretensions of the upper crust. Sir Joseph is just one of the larger-than-life characters that populate the opera, which was one of the first big hits for W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the writing team whose comic style—quick-witted language, catchy melodies and ensemble dance numbers—became the template for musical theater.
The University of Nevada, Reno’s newly relaunched Nevada Chamber Opera program is presenting the 1878 opera for a short run, Nov. 21-23, in Nightingale Hall, in the Church Fine Arts Building on the UNR campus.
The music is jaunty, a mix of genuine glee and farcical silliness. It sometimes gets slightly complex, with different overlapping vocal lines, but it’s never without comedic effect. And the words are carefully crafted—full of clever rhymes, puns and other shaded layers of meaning. One memorable bit is a recurring call-and-response riff that manages to deflate the arrogant Captain Corcoran (Ryan Ashley):
Ensemble: “What, never?”
The Captain: “No, never!”
Ensemble: “What, never?”
The Captain: “Well, hardly ever.”
The story centers on a pair of class-crossed lovers, Ralph Rickshaw (Andrew Collins), a lowly deckhand aboard the Pinafore, and Josephine (Therese Curatolo), the captain’s daughter. But Captain Corcoran doesn’t approve of the match and wants Josephine to marry Sir Joseph. The captain himself has his eye on the “red, round, rosy” Little Buttercup (Kimberlee Pechnik). And the hammy villain Dick Deadeye (Adam Machart) is looking to ruin everybody’s fun.
Though the specifics of the satire belong to the Victorian era, the generalities remain relevant: “Love and rank,” says Cornwell, “and we still deal with that today. … Underneath the period affectations, there’s the main thought process … the story of boy who loves a girl he’s not supposed to love. It’s the classic story, the same as Romeo and Juliet.”
The good-humored, comical musical is deeply embedded in the DNA of musical theater and the culture at large. In the classic Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” Bart stalls the murderous Sideshow Bob by requesting that Bob perform the entire score of H.M.S. Pinafore. Bob, always eager to brandish his talents, is happy to oblige. What follows is a virtuoso solo performance of the opera that the UNR cast will be hard-pressed to match.
But the UNR cast has some talents to pull out: Curatolo hits the glass-rattling high notes with aplomb, Ashley and Cornwell imbue their songs with the funny self-important pomp that their characters deserve, and Pechnik brings Little Buttercup to life with perfectly timed comic mugging. The show is directed by Sue Klemp, with musical direction by Damon Stevens and choreographed by Barbara Land. Though the performance was uneven at a recent rehearsal (a number of singers had yet to find the volume of voice needed to project to the Nightingale Hall), it’s likely to tighten up before opening night.
With its effete, satirical, class-based humor and jaunty music, H.M.S. Pinafore is quintessentially English. It’s great fun and will leave you humming. It runs complete with a ridiculous, implausible plot twist or two and, like any musical comedy worth its weight in sailor costumes, it ends with weddings.