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<em>Patience</em>, English Touring Opera
12 Mar 2017

English Touring Opera Spring 2017: a lesson in Patience

A skewering of the preening pretentiousness of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes of the late-nineteenth century, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience outlives the fashion that fashioned it, and makes mincemeat of mincing dandies and divas, of whatever period, who value style over substance, art over life.

Patience, English Touring Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lauren Zolezzi (Patience) and Bradley Travis (Reginald Bunthorne)

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith


Ever since an anonymous first-night critic in 1881 attempted to identify Gilbert’s ‘idyllic’ poet Archibald Grosvenor with Arthur Swinburne speculation has associated Grosvenor and his rival versifier, the ‘fleshly’ Reginald Bunthorne, with prominent aesthetes of the 1860s such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler and of, course, the most glorious fop of them all, Oscar Wilde.

Interestingly, when impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte sent Wilde to the US on a lecture tour to illustrate the target of Patience’s satire, the resulting positive reception led to D’Oyly Carte’s wry observation that, ‘Inscrutable are the ways of the American public and absurd as it may appear, it seems that Oscar Wilde’s advent here has caused a regular craze and given the business a fillip up.’

But, today G&S is very much a matter of individual taste. And, then there’s the question of updating: if the creators were lampooning their contemporaries, should a present-day director turn the sardonic spotlight on modern mores and manners? While Jonathan Miller may have successfully excised Japan from the Mikado, there are many ‘modernisations’ which trip themselves up on the pedantry of ‘relevance’.

Director Liam Steel plays it straight in this ETO production, and the cast perform with the regimental conformity of good executants performing a work of genius. The knee-bends, handkerchief flourishes, fan-flapping, goose-stepping etc. are timed to perfection; but neat choreography does not a comedy make. There was a danger that the show would lapse into the clichés of pantomime or soap opera, and I longed for dramaturgy which sharpened the satirical edge and gave the performers greater freedom to ‘feel’ the dramatic moment. Perhaps such licence will blossom during the spring tour.

In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Woodstock, Canada where he gave a lecture entitled ‘The House Beautiful’. Designer Florence de Maré’s set doesn’t quite call to mind the gilded stylisation of ‘ornamental aesthetic’ bravura, but she does give us the flora and fauna of a William Morris arts-and-crafts textile pattern - abundant in detail if lacking intensity of colour. De Maré’s muted green and pallid taupe may not conjure a synesthetic sensuousness fitting for a cult of beauty, but she does offer peacock feathers and vine-tracery aplenty. And, there is a match of visual motif and music, in the juxtaposition of the lethargic pallor of the languishing maidens’ ugly dresses and languorous refrain with the red-breasted dragoon’s robustness and readiness.

Maidens RHS.jpg Melancholy, mediaeval Maidens. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Patience is subtitled ‘Bunthorne’s Bride’ but in fact the eponymous ingénue dairymaid is not the leading character. Instead, the show is dominated by the rival poets Bunthorne himself and Archibald Grosvenor, who compete for the affections of the aforesaid maidens and Patience. Indeed, at the close, Bunthorne is singularly single, lacking a bride, despite the erstwhile attentions of the ‘love-sick’ maidens, who spurn their formerly affianced Dragoon Guards and their manly commander, Colonel Calverly, in his favour. When, by the end of Act 1, Bunthorne seems destined to wed Patience, one wonders if the musical entertainment is about to run into the ground; but, the arrival of the bookish Archibald Grosvenor re-directs the feminine gaze and the axe hovering over Act 2 is circumvented.

Arthur Sullivan’s score equals Gilbert’s text for playful parody and pointedness, and the ETO principals and chorus produced a charming performance that would make even the most G&S-phobic audience-member smile, if not guffaw. The young cast and the ETO chorus of ‘twenty [necessity resulting in the substitution, ‘several’] love-sick maidens’ and stiffly uniformed Dragoons proved well-versed in the idiom, both spoken and sung.

Dragoon.jpg The Dragoon. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Though the overture lacked sprightliness, subsequently conductor Timothy Burke paced the drama effectively. Donizetti would have been proud of the Act 1 Finale.

Bradley Travis’s Bunthorne was an extravagant concoction of cerise and orange velvet, floral stockings lilies and peacock feathers, topped with an extravagant beret. Travis postured, posed and attitudinised with grace, gallantry and gentility, and stayed just the right side of camp droopiness. His ironically drowsy patter number, ‘Am I Alone and Unobserved, I Am’, got the show on the road, characterised by RP diction and effortless singing; and, Bunthorne’s ‘Oh Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!’ was delivered in a honeyed baritone not lacking a splattering of hypocrisy and humbug. The swift ‘If you’re anxious for to shine’ was deftly delivered. Travis has superb theatrical timing and knows when to turn up the comic thermometer: his ham-fisted attempts to fix the raffle to ensure that Patience is his bride almost came deliciously unstuck when Bunthorne wedged his elbow in the urn containing the ticket stubs.

Bunthorne RHS.jpg Bradley Travis (Bunthorne). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Ross Ramgobin evinced star quality as Archibald Grosvenor: Ramgobin’s beguiling baritone was powerful and clean, and gave substance to Grosvenor’s insipid amiability and mild-mannered, holier-than-thou-ness. Ramgobin’s Grosvenor was confident but sheered shy of smugness.

Grosvenor RHS.jpg Ross Ramgobin (Archibald Grosvenor). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Lauren Zolezzi’s Patience sparkled with diamond-cut precision from her entrance aria, ‘I cannot tell what this love may be’. Her diction - indeed that of the entire cast - was so clear that, for once, surtitles might easily have been dispensed with. Zolezzi was a paragon of no-nonsense pragmatism; and she swung a laden milk-churn aloft with the same effortless ease with which she despatched the soprano’s lofty flights.

Patience Richard Hubert Smith.jpg Lauren Zolezzi (Patience). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

As Colonel Calverley, Andrew Slater was paradoxically blustering of spirit and nimble of voice in his patter number, ‘If you want a receipt’. Valerie Reid evoked sympathy for the pining Lady Jane, despite Gilbert’s unkind misogyny, in ‘Silver’d is the raven hair’, clutching her double bass trenchantly, and striking an adroit balance between gravity and comedy.

Lady Jane RHS.jpg Valerie Reid (Lady Jane). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

On the whole, Steel, too, struck the right balance between comedy and opera. In 1900, when a revival was being considered, Gilbert himself questioned whether Patience would appeal to then-contemporary tastes. His doubts proved unnecessary and Patience triumphed once more. And, why would it not? By the 1880s Aestheticism was no longer new: Gilbert was poking fun at more than while lilies and japanoiserie. His lampooning of those who starve life to feast on art speaks across the ages; one needs beauty and a square meal - and this production delivers both.

Claire Seymour

Gilbert and Sullivan: Patience

Patience - Lauren Zolezzi, Reginald Bunthorne - Bradley Travis, Archibald Grosvenor - Ross Ramgobin, The Lady Jane - Valerie Reid, The Lady Saphir - Suzanne Fischer, The Lady Angela - Gaynor Keeble, Colonel Calverley - Andrew Slater, Major Murgatroyd - Jan Capiński, Lieutenant The Duke of Dunstable - Aled Hall; Director - Liam Steel, Conductor - Timothy Burke, Designer - Florence de Maré, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, ETO Ensemble and Orchestra.

Hackney Empire, London; Wednesday 8th March 2017.

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