About this Recording
8.110175 - SULLIVAN: H.M.S. Pinafore (D'Oyly Carte) (1948)

‘An Entirely Original Nautical Comic Opera…’

HMS Pinafore

Spurred on by the success of Trial By Jury (1875), in 1876 impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte set up his London-based Comedy Opera production company at the Opera Comique, specifically to promote the comic operettas of William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). Their first production, The Sorcerer (1877) was well received and, on 25th May, 1878, under the musical direction of the composer, this was followed by the even more successful HMS Pinafore (or The Lass That Loved A Sailor). The first real milestone of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, to this day Pinafore has remained a top favourite on a par with The Mikado, The Pirates Of Penzance and The Gondoliers. After a somewhat indifferent première its first production enjoyed a thereto unprecedented initial London run of 571 performances, a phenomenal early success which gave rise briefly to litigation between Carte and his backers, who staged their own short-lived rival production at the Imperial.

Word of HMS Pinafore soon spread like wildfire through English-speaking provinces. Free from copyright, the show, as Herman Klein recalled in Musicians and Mummers, the reminiscences he wrote almost half a century later, was also variously "pirated and appropriated without payment of a cent of royalty" in three separate United States during 1878. Its first (unauthorised) New York production ran for 175 performances from January 1879 and this in turn led to a spate of heavily adapted, often bowdlerised, versions by other American -and even Australian- theatres attempting to cash in on its novelty, before Carte redressed the balance with an authentic Broadway staging.

Having remained, on account of its monumentally droll mockery of snobbish British ideas concerning rank and station, a staple of English operetta, HMS Pinafore has proved more immune than other Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations to modernising trends. In 1940, in Chicago, an attempted transfer to a tropical location proved a flop, as also did two similar Broadway productions (one with an all-black cast) in 1945. A British favourite successfully revived, with minimal concessions to modernity, at the London Old Vic as recently as 1986, HMS Pinafore has also over the years been the subject of several outstanding complete recordings. The very first of these, an acoustic recording of 1922 "under the personal supervision of Rupert D’Oyly Carte", conducted by George W. Byng and sung by such redoubtable Savoyards as Henry Lytton, Bertha Lewis, Sydney Granville and Darrell Fancourt (as Dick Deadeye), assisted by some talented HMV "house" singers, was upgraded in 1930 by an electrical version with a similar cast under Malcolm Sargent. Now digitally re-mastered for CD, this complete version of 1948, featuring various established Savoyards and the New Promenade Orchestra under Isidore Godfrey, who joined D’Oyly Carte in 1925 and was the Company’s Musical Director from 1929 to 1968, was in its day sonically ahead of its time, being one of Decca’s FFRR (Full Frequency Range Recording) series.

HMS Pinafore - Synopsis

Ordinary seaman Ralph Rackstraw loves Captain Corcoran’s daughter Josephine. While returning his love, she at first conceals the fact; she is betrothed to Admiral Sir Joseph Porter, and Ralph, moreover, belongs to a lower social stratum. She later relents, however, and the lovers plan to elope, until they are foiled by the villainous Dick Deadeye. All seems lost until Little Buttercup, the ageing bum-boat woman, explaining how she wet-nursed both the Captain and Ralph, saves the day. The two babies, she explains, had been muddled up. From lowly Jack Tar, Ralph is finally elevated to Captain and may now freely marry the daughter of his inferior.

Act 1 After the Overture [1], the curtain rises on the quarter-deck of the Pinafore, which is bristling with activity. The sailors, who have just been paid, are happily splicing and polishing as they sing [2]. Little Buttercup enters, selling wares from her basket [3]. She inquires of the identity of Ralph who then, first in a disconsolate madrigal with his messmates in chorus, then in a ballad, sings of his unrequited love for "a lass above his station" [4 & 5]. Next, the Captain enters and greets his crew [6]. Buttercup commiserates with him on his daughter’s reluctance to marry Admiral Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B. [7] before Josephine is heard lamenting her predicament in a sad little ballad [8]. Suddenly, an offstage women’s chorus heralds the Admiral’s arrival in a barcarolle [9] and all welcome him, his cousin Hebe and his flurry of sisters and cousins and aunts on board [10]. The "ruler of the Queen’s navee" expounds his theories regarding his own extraordinary rise to power [11-13], whereupon Ralph, the Boatswain and the Boatswain’s Mate and chorus of sailors respond with their own somewhat pugnacious homespun credo [14]. Josephine upbraids Ralph, reminding him of his rank - which Ralph grudgingly acknowledges [15]. During the Act 1 Finale, as hunchbacked Able Seaman Dick Deadeye gloats over Josephine’s rejection, Ralph threatens suicide, Josephine finally rushes in and declares her love for him and, as Deadeye is temporarily subdued, they plan their elopement [16].

Act 2 After a short Entr’acte [17], Corcoran laments the state of affairs [18] and remains despondent despite Buttercup’s attempts to console him [19]. In her mock-operatic Scena, Josephine soliloquises on relinquishing rank and wealth for love [20 & 21] and in the ensuing light-hearted song-and-dance Trio with her father and the Admiral, love the leveller of ranks is discussed in closer detail [22]. Next, at dead of night, the fawning Deadeye informs the Captain of their planned elopement [23] before the departing lovers attempt their escape on tip-toe [24]. Discovered and challenged by the Captain, Ralph, amid the approbation of Josephine and of his colleagues pleads mitigation on the superbly jingoistic grounds of having been born an Englishman [25]. Sir Joseph, on hearing the Captain’s expletive "Damme", banishes the latter to his cabin and sends Ralph in irons to a dungeon [26], whereupon the deus ex machina Little Buttercup arrives to reveal the true identity of Ralph and the Captain [27]. A rousing finale [28] begins with a Quartet comprising Josephine, Ralph, Hebe and Deadeye. Then, amid general rejoicing, the apotheosis takes place, with Ralph exalted to Captain and the Captain reduced to ordinary seaman. Love has levelled ranks at last.

Peter Dempsey

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