Puncturing Pretensions

Eugene Opera’s HMS Pinafore sets social satire to spiffy music

As 2018 mercifully closes, there’s so much wrong in our country that a significant portion of the music and theater being created today seems to be responding, often with outrage, to depredations perpetrated by our ruling class.

A century and a half ago, the British Empire produced a similar share of evils — imperialism, class warfare waged by the one percent on the majority, militarism. A pair of relatively populist artists — wordsmith W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan — responded not with groans but with giggles, eventually creating 14 operettas (somewhere between old-fashioned opera and today’s musicals) that spoofed some of the Empire’s excesses. Mixing vernacular and high-culture influences, they won broad audiences and pioneered a new form of popular musical theater.

On Sunday afternoon, Dec. 30, and New Year’s Eve at the Hult Center, Eugene Opera revives Gilbert & Sullivan’s breakthrough hit, H.M.S. Pinafore. With its cheery tunes, silly comedy and mildly subversive themes, it’s a welcome antidote to mid-winter blahs and a brief reprieve from today’s dead-serious political disputations.

The flimsy story involves a Royal Navy sea captain and his daughter Josephine, who have different ideas about whom she should marry: a noble (Sir Joseph Porter, the first lord of the Admiralty) or a commoner, sailor Ralph Rackstraw. Comic hijinks, improbable plot turns and audience chuckles ensue, and — spoiler! — they all live happily ever.

H.M.S. Pinafore became a huge London hit in 1878 with its first run of 571 performances, making it one of the most popular shows of all time. It drew similar raves the following year when its producers brought it to New York, despite a previous plethora of unauthorized stagings.

It went on to innumerable productions around the world, and it’s easy to see why it’s so frequently performed today. The pompous jingoism, stupid militarism, classism and even sentimental theater it smartly satirizes still flourish, and though G&S are hardly John Oliver set to jaunty tunes, the bubbly music remains irresistibly catchy enough to keep winning admirers for generations to come. 

Sung in English with projected supertitles, EO’s production is directed by David Gately, conducted by EO artistic director Andrew Bisantz, and features Eugene Opera favorites Jake Gardner as Sir Joseph Porter, Curt Olds as Captain Corcoran and Emily Pulley as Little Buttercup, with newcomers Benjamin Robinson and Jessica E. Jones as the lovers.

Scenic designer Don Carson devised the striking sets. Enjoy the silly spectacle and the holidays, and come back refreshed and ready to get serious about today’s outrages in 2019.

Eugene Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore plays 2:30 pm Sunday, Dec. 30, and 7:30 pm Monday, Dec. 31, at Hult Center’s Silva Hall; $20-$89.50, tickets at eugeneopera.org.