Opera Carolina has now presented H.M.S. Pinafore twice in its history. The previous production came in 1991, more than a year before the opening of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and three years before I began regularly covering the opera beat. So the new production at Belk Theater, conducted by James Meena and stage directed by Bill Theisen, was nicely timed to provide me with a welcome clarification of life. Growing up, I found it fairly easy to confuse Gilbert & Sullivan’s two seafaring operettas, The Pirates of Penzance and Pinafore. Both of the libretti feature august military men surrounded by a gaggle of chattery females, counterbalanced by crewmen who have a bungling way with stealth. Both feature lovebirds who are separated by unbridgeable obstacles, dissolved in a trice when an old secret is divulged by an old hen in the closing scene. Pinafore had actually enjoyed a longer London run, when it premiered in 1878 at the Opéra Comique, than Pirates, which opened two years later at the same venue. Past midcentury, the two works were both frequently performed, and before pop music engorged all our broadcast media, the most familiar Pinafore and Pirates tunes were frequently excerpted on TV and radio, compounding my confusion. Joseph Papp’s 1980 revival in Central Park – followed by a 1983 movie version – starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt, seemed to tip the balance, making Pirates the clear favorite among the two.
Coming back to Pinafore after a hiatus of at least three decades, I was eager to have the Opera Carolina production reaffirm the elder work’s parity with Pirates. Sadly, the experience convinced me that I need to let go of my childhood impressions. While my preference for “Modern Major General” over “Monarch of the Sea” is comparatively slight, Pinafore offered me nothing that came close to the charms of “Poor Wandering One,” “A Pirate King,” “A Policeman’s Lot,” and “With Cat-Like Tread.” Gilbert’s plotline here isn’t as active or engaging, which is probably why Theisen strived so strenuously to inject more comedy into the evening. Every time the crew made a humorous interjection, it was double-underlined, and every time Little Buttercup hinted at her deep secret, the moment bore the stamp of portentous Victorian melodrama. Dick Deadeye became even more deformed than usual, sporting an outsized hook in place of his left hand, and he was knocked repeatedly overboard in a lame running joke.
Josephine isn’t quite the songbird Mabel is, but Alicia Berneche made an auspicious Charlotte debut in the role, vocally rich and comically vivacious. Opposite this properly wanton Josephine, Colm Fitzmaurice cut a rather pallid figure as seaman Ralph Rackstraw, though he began sweetly enough in his first “Nightingale” madrigal. Called upon to match Josephine’s fire, Fitzmaurice hardly seemed worthy of Berneche’s ardor afterwards. No, the wisdom of Josephine’s romantic leanings was mostly bolstered by the delicious decrepitude of Gary Briggle as her intended, Sir Joseph, ruler of the Queen’s Navy. Briggle reveled in his signature patter song and performed his wooing of Josephine with all the naturalness of a conversation with a foreign dignitary in an unfamiliar language, punctuated by his perfectly coiffed eyebrows.
Adding a snippet of Carmen to her portrayal, Deborah Fields was a lusty Little Buttercup whose pleasing plumpness was clearly intended to make a joke of her name. There was plenty of bloom in Fields’ “Poor Little Buttercup” at the top of Act 1, before repetitions of its arpeggios later in the score wore out their welcome, and if “I Am the Captain of the Pinafore” isn’t nearly the glorious thing we hear the Pirate King sing, John Muriello infused it with a casual British geniality. Bass baritone Matthew Trevino had a better voice than the other men, but as Dick Deadeye, he had fewer opportunities to shine than to fall off the mast.
Meena did a fine job with the Charlotte Symphony, although a talkative dowager seated behind me deprived me of some of the satisfactions in the entr’acte. Theisen’s vaudevillian approach was handsomely served – if not inspired – by Gary Eckhart’s old-timey scenic design on loan from Tri-Cities Opera. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design was sunny and cheerful enough, but I kept waiting for the faux footlights in Eckhart’s scenery to come into play. Even when Josephine and Ralph began eloping from the ship in the middle of the night, those footlights remained a decorative ornament.