MUSIC / Bright as buttons: Meredith Oakes on Roger Norrington's concert performance of HMS Pinafore at the South Bank Centre

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The Independent Culture
The London Philharmonic performed HMS Pinafore at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday night with Roger Norrington conducting. Was it a statement? Is 1994 to be the year when England draws the curtains, chinks its teacups, and finally abandons all pretence at being interested in sex, brains, art or foreigners? Or will it be precisely with a view to attracting foreigners that Gilbert and Sullivan's bone-china classics of English insouciance are brought into the concert repertoire as part of the heritage market?

Perhaps it was just innocent fun. Isn't that what they always say about G&S? I can think of lots of things more innocent, and more fun, than Sullivan's leering, inane rip-offs of real music, or Gilbert's pert, complacent rhymes. There's a thin line between English middle-class self-mockery and English middle-class self-congratulation, and the famous closing anthem, 'For He Is an English Man', places HMS Pinafore flagrantly on the wrong side of it.

Norrington's involvement half made one think there'd be a musicological angle, a newly discovered MS, a sensational earlier scoring. But no. The only thing that set this Pinafore apart was the quality of the singers, though here, as with the sprinkling of empty seats, there wasn't quite the take- up that might have been expected. Lesley Garrett was replaced by Marilyn Hill Smith, Richard van Allan by David Thomas and Robert Tear by Neil Jenkins.

Thomas's Dick Deadeye was a revelation. He's more often to be found singing lute songs with Emma Kirkby, but here, swaggering in a gold cummerbund and a vicious sneer, was a newly assertive Thomas, who sang with tremendous firmness and profile, and was an audience favourite.

Sarah Walker was another, clad in copious yellow as Little Buttercup, launching dire warnings in her thrilling mezzo, and sidling from music stand to music stand in order to be close to Capt Corcoran (David Wilson-Johnson in shapely, sprightly form).

Vocally, Marilyn Hill Smith was more obvious, girlish, operetta- style casting for the captain's daughter Josephine than Lesley Garrett whom she replaced. She was great value in rousing cadence-phrases, punching out the top line unswervingly, and she achieved a comic grace skilfully poised between sugar and spice. Ruby Philogene, a glamorous mezzo newcomer, impressed as the Admiral's cousin Hebe.

The concentration, accuracy and playfulness of the cast did credit to Roger Norrington, as did the orchestra's clear focus and springing tempi. The men of the London Philharmonic Choir, as the crew of the ship, had more to do than the women's chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts. They did it in a very graceful, nicely-turned fashion, not too hearty, and their quick cues were immaculate. It was all as bright as a row of buttons. And as interesting.