OPERETTA / The real thing: Jan Smaczny on the start of D'Oyly Carte's new season in Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
D'Oyly Carte's new policy of mingling familiar Gilbert and Sullivan with operetta from other traditions raises interesting questions about the British ability to enjoy comic opera from Europe on the same basis as the native product. Last year the honours were shared more or less equally between Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and G & S's The Pirates of Penzance. This year, with Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus pitted against HMS Pinafore, the results were more of a 2-1 win for G & S.

While Tim Hatley's Fledermaus set - all frothy allure - promised an airy confection, Martin Duncan's production was rather more reminiscent of the solid virtues of a Viennese Sachertorte. Few of the cast showed much enthusiasm for comedy in a puzzlingly earthbound Act 1. Things livened up for Orlofsky's ball - with Deborah Hawksley a charmingly feline Prince - and the final prison scene fairly rattled along.

Adey Grummet's Adele grew from a slightly predictable 'Ooh-la-la' maid in Act 1 into a formidable comedian. Rosemarie Arthars' Rosalinda also developed well as the 'mysterious' Hungarian countess. David Fieldsend (Eisenstein), Khosrow Mahsoori (Alfred) and Lynton Black (Frank) were excellent as the male leads, even if their way with the farce was a touch laboured. But apart from the concerted scenes, I couldn't help feeling they would have been happier with a patter-song or two.

A certain unease also seemed to infect the audience. The problem for a public bristling with Gilbertian expectations is that Die Fledermaus, while undeniably jolly, is not very funny. And there was a perceptible rise in temperature when Act 3 began with an unashamedly up-to-date comic break for Frosch, the jailer, superbly hammed up by Paul Barnhill.

The proof of the pudding was the palpable enthusiasm with which the company's magnificent new HMS Pinafore was greeted. Martin Duncan's witty, unaffected production so relaxed its audience that, by their return from the interval, they were crashing into boxes of chocolates and humming along with atavistic glee.

Highly coloured and proficient as their Fledermaus was, D'Oyly Carte's HMS Pinafore had all the confidence of the real thing, reinforcing the stereotypes while managing to keep the edges crisp. An athletic sailors' chorus trod a fine line between camp extravagance and hearty assertiveness, while Sir Joseph's female entourage succumbed to the vapours with comic aplomb.

Gordon Sandison made a near-ideal First Lord, ably supported by Frances McCafferty's Little Buttercup, Lynton Black's Dick Deadeye and Tom McVeigh's Captain Corcoran. Their innate feeling for comedy drew the line between the knockabout and sentimental elements with devastating clarity.

As the romantic leads, Josephine and Ralph, Yvonne Patrick and Niall Morris lacked the same opportunities for audience engagement, but retaliated with beautiful tone (if less than perfect diction).

In happy unison with the cast, the orchestra, under John Owen Edwards, accompanied like a dream. If their way with Die Fledermaus lacked a convincing Viennese bounce, their treatment of Sullivan's musical patchwork could hardly have been bettered.

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (021-633 3325) to 24 Sept; then on tour

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