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H.M.S. Pinafore premiered in London on May 25, 1878 at the Opéra-Comique.
The story takes place aboard the British ship H.M.S. Pinafore.
Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and lyricist Sir William S. Gilbert defined operetta in Victorian England with a series of internationally successful works known as the Savoy Operas. Their first collaboration was in 1871 with the operetta Thespis. They would go on to collaborate on fifteen operettas, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Gondoliers and of course, The Pirates of Penzance.
Gilbert was highly renowned as a successful man of the London theatre, having written many successful comedies, pantomimes, burlesques and musicals. Sullivan was the most popular musician in England, and was regarded as the bright young hope for serious British music. He was in considerable demand as a composer of oratorios, anthems, and hymns.
Their first worldwide success was in 1878 with H.M.S. Pinafore, which satirizes the Royal Navy and British society. The success of Pinafore was followed in quick succession by The Pirates of Penzance in the following year, with Patience, Iolanthe, Ruddigore, The Yoeman of the Guard, the Gondoliers and The Mikado being created between 1879 and 1885. Gilbert’s plots remain perfect examples of “Topsy-turvydom” in which unusual characters rub elbows with English nobility in situations that spoof social conventions with exceptional rhymes and puns that served as a model for the American musicals of Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. The Savoy operas are still enjoyed throughout the world for the wit of Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s engaging melodies.
The sailors of Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore are merrily preparing for Sir Joseph’s inspection. Little Buttercup hints of a dark secret she is hiding, Dick Deadeye, a member of the crew is grumbling as usual, and Ralph is pining over Josephine. Sir Joseph appears, attended by an entourage of ladies, who are his relatives and who follow him everywhere, for no particular reason other than it allows for young women to join the story. Sir Joseph explains how he became Lord of the Admiralty. He examines the crew and encourages them to feel that they are everyone’s equal, except, of course, his. The men of the HMS Pinafore sing a rousing number that Sir Joseph himself has written for them to raise their spirits. Josephine finds Sir Joseph insufferable. Ralph pleads his love to her and finally threatens to kill himself – at which she agrees to elope. The Act I curtain falls with the sailors of the HMS Pinafore rejoicing at Ralph’s success – and Dick Deadeye croaking a warning that their hopes will be frustrated.
The scene opens with the Captain lamenting his daughter’s coldness toward Sir Joseph. Little Buttercup tries to console him, and says that all will turn out well. Sir Joseph enters and tells the Captain that Josephine has thoroughly discouraged him from pursuing her, and that he wants to call the match off. The Captain suggest that his daughter’s hesitation is due to her being of a lower class than Sir Joseph, and urges him to assure Josephine that social rank will not be considered a barrier to their marriage. Sir Joseph follows this advice, but Josephine applies his words to the class difference between her and Ralph. Sir Joseph believes she has accepted him, she is reaffirmed in her vow to Ralph, and everyone sings a happy song. Meanwhile, Dick Deadeye has told the Captain of Josephine’s and Ralph’s upcoming elopement. The Captain intercepts the lovers with the exclamation “Damne!” Unfortunately, Sir Joseph and his relatives hear him and are horrified at his swearing – Sir Joseph sends the Captain to his cabin in disgrace. And when Sir Joseph learns Ralph and Josephine are eloping, he orders Ralph put in irons. Little Buttercup now reveals her secret. Many years ago, she had charge of nursing and bringing up both Ralph and the Captain when they were babies – and, completely innocently, she got them mixed up – so the one they all know as Ralph should really be the Captain and the Captain should be an able seaman. This error is immediately rectified. The sudden reversal of class status of Ralph and the Captain removes Sir Joseph as a suitor for Josephine’s hand, and permits her to marry Ralph, and her father to marry Little Buttercup. Sir Joseph resigns himself to marrying his cousin Hebe – as all’s well that ends well.
Sir Joseph Porter (baritone) - The first lord of the Admiralty. He is elderly, very proper, very upright, very British. He is keenly aware of class distinction, and that none on the Pinafore are his equal in status.
Captain Corcoran (baritone) - A young man of presumed good stock who has a level of social status. He has arranged for his daughter Josephine to marry Sir Joseph.
Josephine (soprano) - Captain Corcoran’s daughter. A young woman, delightful, perky and spirited. She is madly in love with Ralph.
Ralph Rackstraw (tenor) - An able seaman of the Pinafore. He is the same age as the Captain. Courageous, valiant, handsome, well-liked. He is madly in love with Josephine.
Little Buttercup (mezzo) - The matronly maid who raised Ralph and the Captain. She holds an important secret which will be revealed at the end of the operetta.
Dick Deadeye (bass) - One of the able seamen of the Pinafore, he is the malcontent of the crew, always grumbling and seeking a chance to make trouble for someone. Not really evil, just grumpy.
Both natives of London, Sullivan studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Academy, and went on to compose numerous oratorios and other sacred and orchestral works. Gilbert, six years older, made his name both as a poet and playwright as well as a satirist and caricature artist (his humorous drawings often appeared in the fashionable magazine Punch). Both men strived for fame and acceptance as “serious” artists, Gilbert with his play Pygmalion and Galatea, and Sullivan with his grand opera Ivanhoe. However, it was their work together that would secure them a place in history.
Introduced by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, their collaboration began in 1875 with the one-act Trial by Jury. They would go on to write many more operettas together (although, being serious men, they always referred to their works as “operas”), including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887) and The Yeoman of the Guard (1888). Nearly all of these were first performed at D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theater, and have become known as the “Savoy Operas.”
Despite their differences in personal temperament—they were never good friends and often collaborated only by correspondence—they were as ideal a librettist-composer team as ever existed, with Gilbert’s poetic and satiric gifts finding a perfect match in Sullivan’s genius for delectable melody and musical parody. Although the Savoy “Operas” never achieved the same kind of fame abroad as in English-speaking countries, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are still performed all over England and the U.S., delighting people over a hundred years later.
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Enjoy the beauty of the original language and understand it all with English translations. The English text is projected on a screen above the stage for each opera. Easy to follow, and easy to understand every twist and turn of the plot!