Great moments in opera: H.M.S. Pinafore

November 25, 2011

Everyone, I suppose, has their favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Most of the time I am inclined to name The Mikado as mine, but in those moments when I crinkle my brow at the thought of ladies attending seminary, or sink wearily under the weight of faux-Japanese gibberish, it is H.M.S. Pinafore that crests the waves and comes to my rescue. From start to finish it is packed full of good humour, sharp wit, and infectious melodies, with hardly a misstep anywhere. It is really hard to imagine a more winsome combination.

This week I had the good fortune to view, for the first time, a stage performance (on DVD) of the work. As I watched, I was embarrassed to realize that, despite the fact that I could sing along to a good portion of the music, I did not actually know the story, for I had never before heard the dialogue that comes between the musical numbers. The plot is essentially a love triangle with a good bit of class consciousness thrown in, with the various difficulties being magically resolved at the last moment by a ridiculous contrivance. This story, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, is ludicrous, but still it was enjoyable to learn how the various songs fit together in context.

One is spoiled for choice of good music in Pinafore, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the clips available online. This operetta is, it seems, a favourite of small-time musical societies the world over, each of which posts a grainy, dark, out of focus, and muffled recording of its performance online. I have had a horrendous time sifting through them to find something decent. The DVD I watched was from Opera Australia, and it was superb (recommended without reservations!), but I could find only a few clips from it.

Here is one. This is I am the Captain of the Pinafore [text], an introductory number in which we get to know the Captain and his right good crew. The Captain is sung here by Anthony Warlow.

When I was a lad [text] is probably the most famous song in the piece. In it, the First Lord of the Admiralty describes how he rose to his position of eminence. The part is sung here by Drew Forsythe:

I am fond of the finale to Act I, which is quite jaunty and has some nice contrapuntal surprises, but I cannot find a decent clip. Alas.

Alas the more: good online clips of the best numbers from Act II elude me. I am thinking in particular of Never mind the why and wherefore [text]. I shall have to make do with this audio-only clip (albeit from the best available recording):

If H.M.S. Pinafore droops anywhere, it is in the finale [text]. That’s a bad place to droop, obviously, but there you have it. Sullivan weaves a medley of tunes we’ve heard before, but prominent among them is a grand (that is, rather dull) chorus on the theme “He is an Englishman” — where “Englishman” is understood to mean something like “As Good A Chap As You’re Likely To Find”. Our hearts are supposed to swell with pride at hearing this chorus, but mine does not, and so the finale fizzles for me. Fiddlesticks.

The [text] links in this post all go to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive. My thanks to them for making the libretto available online in such a convenient and readable format.

16 Responses to “Great moments in opera: H.M.S. Pinafore

  1. Janet Says:

    I love it. We got a tape of H. M. S. Pinafore from the library when the kids were younger, and they watched it over and over again. They especially liked Never Mind the Why and Wherefore.

    I love The Mikado, too. I have a copy that I bought at a library sale. I think in this case that seminary means: “b. A school of higher education, especially a private school for girls.”


    • cburrell Says:

      I am really looking forward to the day when our kids are old enough to enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan. That day is not yet here. This morning I was singing When I was a lad while making breakfast, and my daughter said, “Don’t sing that one, Daddy. I don’t like when you sing that one.” So that was the end of that.

  2. Janet Says:

    You know, the cat in A Good Man is Hard to Find is named Pitty Sing.


  3. cburrell Says:

    I think you’re on to something here, Janet. You should write a paper.

  4. Janet Says:

    Well, I’ve been looking for it, but I changed computers and I put a lot of stuff on a CD to move to the new (to me) computer and the CD drive doesn’t work on this computer and now I can’t find the CD. I’m sure it will turn up eventually. Then I will read it and see if I think it’s good enough to send you. It’s been a long time since I wrote it.


  5. cburrell Says:

    It sounds fascinating, Janet, so if it turns up, by all means send it over. But don’t put yourself out looking for it.

    Happy Thanksgiving, also. You folks sure have a late harvest down there.

  6. Janet Says:

    I’m switching email and I’m writing a comment so I can get comments to come to my new address. 😉


  7. Mac Says:

    Well, I’ve always been struck by the cat’s name in the story, but didn’t notice it in The Mikado, which I think I’ve only seen/heard once. So I just assumed it was the grandmother’s annoying baby-talk name for her cat. I love Pinafore.

    And Janet’s right about “seminary,” I’m sure. I’ve run across more than one private school or college that was originally founded in the 1800s as “the such-and-such female seminary.” They definitely weren’t schooling women for the ministry.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I know they’re not referring to a theological seminary in the song. I was just having a little fun.

    I can’t believe you’ve only seen/heard The Mikado once! It is really awfully good. (I’ll be posting about it in a few weeks, probably. Maybe after Christmas.)

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