Writer/Composer W.S. Gilbert/Arthur Sullivan
Director: Liam Steel
Conductor: Timothy Burke
Designer: Florence de Mare
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
English Touring Opera’s Spring programme consists of two operas which have nothing in common stylistically despite being first performed within 20 years of each other. Puccini’s blood-boltered melodrama Tosca is teamed with Patience, an excellent choice as ETO’s first Gilbert and Sullivan.
Like Ruddigore, memorably re-created by Opera North recently, Patience is well suited to a mainstream opera company. It has fewer of the formulaic features of the most popular G&S operas and the comic baritone lead needs singing, not just pattering. The plot is gloriously eccentric, the satire on the cult of celebrity has plenty of contemporary resonance, and the score has some of Sullivan’s most beautiful melodies and inspired accompaniments, from the manic clarinet counter-melody on If Saphir I choose to marry to the insidious motor figure on When I go out of door.
In Patience, Gilbert gleefully satirises everything he can lay his hand on, mainly the Aesthetic movement. Reginald Bunthorne, a narcissistic poet, with hints of Wilde, Swinburne, Whistler and many others, steals the hearts of the love-sick maidens (of impeccably upper-class credentials) from the blunter wits of the Dragoon Guards Officers. Bunthorne himself loves a milk-maid, the eponymous Patience, and the situation is compounded by the arrival of Archibald Grosvenor, a purer, milder poet, “Archibald the All-Right”, who wins the adoration of the maidens. Gilbert enjoys throwing a few squibs in the direction of our nobler regiments, the class system and absurdly high-flown concepts of love.
English Touring Opera’s production is a terrific way to spend two and a bit hours and a counter-blast to anti-G&S snobbery, but somehow it doesn’t send you out giddy with delight, as it should. It has a fine cast without a weak link, Timothy Burke conducts with a real sense of style and Liam Steel’s direction is true to the original without being derivative. Maybe early in the tour Burke is being a touch careful and the musical performance still lacks a little fizz, but the main problem is almost certainly the set.
Florence de Mare’s costumes are beautifully in period and just enough over the top, but her set is better for looking at than performing on. Castle Bunthorne has very elegant statuary, but walls leading to an acute angle and steeply narrowing steps restrict movement. When the female chorus enters, the Dragoons form fours and line up at the side to get out of the way; the ladies themselves, moving in silent adoration, have awkward (and noisy) down steps to negotiate; when the full cast assembles, Steel – very imaginative with the dance routines for smaller groups – is reduced to forming them up in lines.
As the two rival poets, Bradley Travis and Ross Ramgobin give stylish and perfectly judged performances, Travis striking attitudes as to the manner born and singing impeccably as Bunthorne, Ramgobin a natural comedian, perhaps not quite insipid enough for Grosvenor, but a joy in his transformation into “a matter-of-fact young man”.
Also outstanding is Valerie Reid (Lady Jane), a match for the D’Oyly Carte contraltos of yore with added lyricism. The love-sick maidens achieve the remarkable feat of being funnier than the Dragoon Guards, with Suzanne Fischer (Lady Saphir) and Gaynor Keeble (Angela) making the most of the potentially thankless parts. Lauren Zolezzi’s sweet-voiced Patience is a bit neutral as a character but looks and sounds just right. Andrew Slater, Aled Hall and Jan Capinski have fun as the dragoons-turned-aesthetes, with Slater’s gruff Colonel Calverley pattering brilliantly on If you want a receipt; his confusion of the verses of When I first put this uniform on was no doubt a one-off.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed