‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ is slow sailing

Understandably, some prefer “The Mikado,” others will tell you that “The Pirates of Penzance” is the best. And yet, Arthur Sullivan never wrote more enchanting music, nor William Gilbert a more clever libretto, than for “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

It is a crown jewel among the 14 works they wrote, which may be called comic operas, operettas, musicals — butmost precisely just “Gilbert & Sullivan,” a genre onto itself, albeit exhibiting kinship with Rossini, Donizetti and much of the 19th-century operatic tradition, containing even a touch of Wagner here and there.

The story, about the pre-doomed (but eventually triumphant) love between the lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine, the daughter of the ship’s captain, is simplicity itself, but the text and lyrics are hilarious, and judicious updating (such as a “Mission Accomplished” sign popping up on the ship at a moment of false hope) are all for good.

This nautical “G&S” fan, on the way to the Walnut Creek premiere of “Pinafore” reflected on the luck of the area to have the 55-year-old Lamplighters organization preserve, carry on, and enhance the Gilbert & Sullivan canon. In addition to the excellent company soloists and producer/director Barbara Heroux, this revival also features conductor George Thomson, an outstanding figure on the Bay Area classical-music scene.

And yet, in the cruel world of opera, component excellence doesn’t guarantee success of the whole. At subsequent performances — especially in Napa this weekand and the weekend after in the Yerba Buena Center — the missing gestalt is highly likely to be found. But on Thursday, Thompson’s (probably scholarly) English music-hall languor just about sucked the life out of the score.

Painfully slow, excessively careful musical direction was surprisingly, amazingly poor in anything but the fast numbers. “Pinafore” should sparkle throughout, not only in “We sail the ocean blue” and “I am the monarch of the sea” (delivered well by F. Lawrence Ewing as Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty, more in the musical-comedy than opera/operetta tradition).

However well Jennifer Ashworth sang the role of Josephine, “Sorry her lot” and “The hours creep on apace” almost came to a halt under Thompson’s leaden baton. Katy Daniel’s “I’m called LittleButtercup” turned into a dirge, through no fault of the singer, and the fabulous tenor of Jonathan Spencer (exemplary diction, clarity and projection) had to plod along with with the orchestra in “Fair moon, to thee I sing,” although he and the small (and on-and-off) chorus managed to pick up the tempo in “I am the Captain of the Pinafore.” Sweet-toned Jonathan Smucker, the Able Seaman Rackstraw, sang “The nightingale” well (and slowly), and held his own in ensemble numbers.

If I hadn’t heard Thompson conduct a broad range of music so well elsewhere, I’d worry about the future of this “Pinafore,” but in the event, it’s certain that the problem is not musical ability, but rather a misguided notion to substitute lassitude for a properly “Victorian” and yet vigorous performance.

H.M.S. Pinafore

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St. (at Third Street), San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 17-18; 2 p.m. Aug. 19

Tickets: $16 to $44

Contact: (415) 978-2787 or www.lamplighters.org

Note: Performances this weekend at the Napa Valley Opera House

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