The 1971 D'Oyly Carte Pinafore

Sir Joseph PorterJohn Reed
Captain CorcoranThomas Lawlor
Ralph RackstrawRalph Mason
Dick DeadeyeJohn Ayldon
Bill BobstayJon Ellison
Bob BecketArthur Jackson
JosephineValerie Masterson
Little ButtercupChristene Palmer
HebePauline Wales

D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: James Walker

Recorded at Decca Studios, West Hampstead
14–15 March 1971

London SPCA-12001
London SPCA-12001

This Pinafore may well be the most detested D'Oyly Carte recording of all time. It was the Company's one and only full-length opera recorded in the so-called Phase 4 sound. (Exactly what this was is explained on another page.)

To mark the occasion, the engineers went overboard (pun intended) with sound effects. The water is heard lapping up against the ship's sides in the dialogue scenes, with a persistent seagull being the star of the opera. To most listeners, it was all too much, while the performance itself was decidedly less taut than in the 1960 recording.

Decca/London 455 160-2
Decca/London 455 160-2

The CD re-issue finally arrived (in U.K. stores, at least) on September 15, 1997. I had hoped this would signal the re-issue of the numerous D'Oyly Carte recordings that have never appeared on CD, but several correspondents rang in that this is unlikely — the Pinafore being tied to a series of Phase 4 re-issues, nothing more. However, as a welcome bonus, the two-CD set includes highlights from Sir Malcolm Sargent's 1965 highlights disc, A Gilbert & Sullivan Spectacular, Decca's only other G&S Phase 4 disc. (Understandably, the Pinafore items from that disc are not re-issued here.)

Whereas I heard nothing but complaints about this recording for years, finally some positive comments have started to come in. Ian Bond wrote:

Not having listened to this recording for several years, other than the odd snippet for comparison purposes, I was pleasantly surprised yesterday evening to find how good this production actually is. I guess my opinion, and the opinion of others, had been coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the 'sound effects', so much so that one's ability to listen to the actual performance was impaired by the distraction.

A quick comparison of the LP against the CD reveals that the level of the sound effects has been reduced, allowing the performance to be heard, and the sound effects to act merely as atmosphere. The original recording was also recorded at an incredibly high level, leading to a certain amount of distortion. This seems to have been resolved, certainly in Act One, although there is still some minor distortion in Act Two.

The one disappointment of the set, for me, is Thomas Lawlor as Corcoran. There is just something about the voice that makes him seem too heavy and dark hued. I personally much preferred Jeffrey Skitch or Alan Styler in the role. Valerie Masterson is, of course, excellent as Josephine and for the first time one is able to hear Ralph Mason as Ralph.

I would never say that this recording comes anywhere near the 1960 in excellence, but let's just say, we need to re-evaluate it, as it is now revealed to be a much better recording than could have been suspected in its original LP guise.

The disappointments of the set are the items from the Spectacular and I'm afraid the blame has to be laid at the feet of Sir Malcolm Sargent. The problem is the tempi — a problem which I have always felt dogged his Glyndebourne series, and his 1965 Ida.

'Wand'ring Minstrel' and 'A More Humane Mikado' are about the best, with Philip Potter on top form in the former and Donald Adams turning in a vintage performance in the latter. But in some of the other numbers you can sense that the singers are trying to push the number on, but are being literally forced back by Sargent. 'There grew a little flower' and 'Three little maids' are prime examples, and 'The flowers that bloom' almost grinds to a halt and, as a result, ends the second CD on a definite anti-climax. Such a pity when one listens to Sargent's 1920's and 1930's recordings, which are so full of life.

Chris Webster also noted that the dialogue tracks are banded off separately, something Decca has not done for any of its other G&S re-issues that include dialogue.

Dan Kravetz and Phil Sternenberg haven't heard the CD yet, but both were quick to pipe in that the recording isn't as bad as everyone says. Reports Dan:

I don't consider the Pinafore a total disaster — the sound effects were intented to evoke the feeling of being on a real ship, something that was in keeping with where opera recordings were supposed to be going after the first complete Wagner Ring brought the listener right into Nibelheim and Valhalla. With D'Oyly Carte but a memory, however, it's worth much more to be allowed to feel that one is in a theater watching an authentic stage production; the earlier Decca/London CD Pinafore can't be topped in that sense, but the new reissue should be worth having, not only for Valerie Masterson's Josephine, but for Ralph Mason's Rackstraw and Thomas Lawlor's Corcoran as well.

Phil Sternenberg wrote:

I know it's popular to bash it, and the overall performance of its predecessor's cast was, I feel, much better. Yet Phase 4, despite the seagulls, produces some great effects. In particular, I've never heard better stereophonic separation (if that term applies here) on any other G&S recording. As an example, one can turn the right-left balance knob to one extreme or the other and virtually silence either the Captain or Deadeye in their duet. When characters walk on stage, at times one can really hear them move from one side to the other. It's aural virtual reality throughout (everyday reality, that is, not theatrical reality).

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the CD re-issue. Clive Woods wrote:

I don't find the seagulls too bad, and certainly not the worst aspect of this recording. At least they are (mostly) only there during the spoken lib. The music is mostly untouched by sound effects. My own personal preference would be to have the music performed completely "straight", as in a concert, with no extra effects at all (but I don't expect everyone here to agree with that!). Far worse, is:

  1. There is what sounds like a loud sneeze straight into a microphone on the RH channel, a few pages into the Act 2 finale! (Perhaps it is actually "electronic" in origin — has anyone else heard this?)
  2. Buttercup makes her first entrance on the RH channel. During the course of her first song she steadily moves over to LH channel, and then back again! No doubt the intended effect was one of moving about the stage (the speciality of Phase 4); in fact it just seems like she's on wheels! No justification whatsoever. Similar repetitions throughout.
  3. On many occasions the principals are singing at high level in a very dry acoustic, but the chorus are at lower level and with huge added reverb. Again, no doubt the intended effect was that the principals are downstage and the chorus upstage, but it sounds comical.
  4. The orchestra is recorded throughout at too low a level compared to the singers.
  5. There is frequently heavy distortion on loud (and not-so-loud) bits. The opening drum roll does not bode well, when the second note (bass drum) is quite clearly distorted. And then on and on, throughout the recording, there is clearly audible distortion on peaks. This recording was made in 1971 (I think) when recording technology was becoming quite mature; there's no excuse for this.

One good thing to say is that it includes the wonderful Peggy Ann Jones's performance in "Three little maids", and on this CD's evidence it becomes even more inexplicable that she was avoided on earlier recordings.

Charles Manekin related the following anecdote:

After graduating from my Baltimore high school in 1971, and already a confirmed Savoyard, I traveled with my brother to London where I made a pilgrimage to the offices of the D'Oyly Carte (hoping I may get a summer job.) No job was forthcoming, but when I said to the secretary how awful this recording was because of the notorious sound-effects, she replied, "Dame Bridget agrees with you. You will notice that this is the only recording that appears without the line "under the supervision of Bridget D'Oyly Carte."

Issue History
1971 Decca Stereo LP OPFS 1/2
London Stereo LP SPCA 12001
197-? London 4-track reel-to-reel K-475066
1976(?) Jubilee Cassette JL5-42011
1980s(?) London Cassette 421209-4
1997 Decca/London CD 455 160-2