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CD Review

Gilbert & Sullivan

H.M.S. Pinafore

  • Martyn Green (Sir Joseph Porter)
  • Leslie Rands (Captain Corcoran)
  • Leonard Osborn (Ralph Rackstraw)
  • Darrell Fancourt (Dick Deadeye)
  • Muriel Harding (Josephine)
  • Ella Halman (Little Buttlecup)
Chorus of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
New Promenade Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Naxos 8.110175 ADD monaural 67:53
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Some Savoyards (a fancy name for fans and performers of Gilbert and Sullivan's several operettas) recognize the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company as the only ensemble with an authentic hold on this repertoire. It was founded in 1876 by impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, and all of the new Gilbert and Sullivan works were premièred by it, including H.M.S. Pinafore, which premièred in the spring of 1878.

The D'Oyly Cartes recorded and re-recorded their repertoire with each improvement in the preservation of recorded sound. Prior to 1925, acoustic recordings of the operettas were made, and these were followed by electrical recordings. Then, in the late 1940s, the LP record began to supplant bulky and impractical 78s. The Pinafore preserved here was the first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to be rerecorded for LP. The sessions took place in London's Kingway Hall in 1948, and were released shortly thereafter on London and Decca discs.

This performance (and it really does feel like a performance, not like a studio run-through) is a good example of what the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was doing at the time, and the result is a Pinafore which is viable even today. Conductor Isidore Godfrey, who had been with the company since 1925, ensures that tradition is respected without letting the work descend into routine. He keeps Sullivan's melodies bouncing along happily, and he gives due weight his gentle parodies of grand opera (for example, Josephine's "The hours creep on apace").

Several of the veteran Company members participate on this recording. Martyn Green brought well-trained musicality to each of his roles. His snobbish Sir Joseph Porter demonstrates that vocal skills are no less important than acting skills to make the role seem real. His "I Am the monarch of the Sea" is a highlight. Leslie Rands, although well contrasted with Green, brings a similar balance of singing and characterization to Captain Corcoran. Darrell Fancourt, probably the greatest Mikado of them all, seems a little squandered as Dick Deadeye, yet he makes a strong impression with the little that he is given to do. Ella Halman's Little Buttercup also deserves a mention. She doesn't weigh the music down with her rich contralto voice, a lesson that some of her successors should have learned.

Tenor Leonard Osborn seldom was entirely satisfactory. (He is said to have been better to see on stage than to hear on recordings.) As long as Ralph Rackstraw is heroic or defiant, he is effective enough, but his romantic singing is quavery. Muriel Harding's Josephine also is tremulous; this is not English classical singing at its most warm-blooded. (Think of Anna Russell singing her parody "Nymphs and Shepherds".)

The restoration has been effected by David Lennick. Decca's FFRR sound was a plus in 1948, and it helped to create sonics that are very listenable even today. There is some variation in the sound from number to number, a reminder of the immediate past when this recording would have been released on 78-rpm sides. (In fact, it was released in that format for a brief time, simultaneously with the LPs.)

Naxos includes a brief essay, a plot synopsis, and bios of Green, Rands, Osborn, and Fancourt. For Savoyards who wish to collect this particular recording, Naxos' version is inexpensive but unstinting. Even collectors who don't know Pinafore at all might do worse than to hear it through this version. However, as this recording excludes the spoken material between numbers (as most recordings do), listeners might want to look for the D'Oyly Carte recording that was made in 1960.

Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle