Gilbert & Sullivan
Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride – a comic opera in two acts with words by W. S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Bunthorne – Simon Butteriss
Grosvenor – Toby Stafford-Allen
Colonel Calverly – Donald Maxwell
Major Murgatroyd – Graeme Danby
Lt The Duke of Dunstable – Bonaventura Bottone
Patience – Rebecca Bottone
Lady Jane – Felicity Palmer
Lady Angela – Pamela Helen Stephen
Lady Ella – Elena Xanthoudakis
Lady Saphir – Sophie-Louise Dann
Solicitor [silent role] – Robert Tear
Chorus of English National Opera
BBC Concert Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras
Martin Duncan – Director
Steve Elias – Assistant director & Choreographer
Estelle Butler – Costume supervisor
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 11 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
We all seem to be in need of having our spirits lifted these days. Cue Gilbert and Sullivan. It is a long time since I experienced such joyous entertainment as this Proms performance of “Patience”.
One of the most light-hearted of all the Savoy Operas, “Patience” displays W. S. Gilbert at his most sparklingly funny and universally appealing, unfettered by the griping satire that runs through much of his work. Though it sends up flamboyant Victorian poet Oscar Wilde and his flower-power aesthetic movement, the work’s humour comes almost exclusively from its strong characters and comic situations: the droopy, poetry-besotted gaggle of “rapturous maidens”, juxtaposed with the plain-talking naivety of the milkmaid Patience; the rivalry between the two poets (Bunthorne, working hard to attract the ladies, and his nemesis, the effortlessly beautiful Grosvenor, desperately trying to shake them off); and the poets’ dandy pretentiousness contrasted with the bluff machismo of a troop of Heavy Dragoon Guards.
It is almost impossible to imagine a more perfectly presented performance than this. Life-long G & S enthusiast Sir Charles Mackerras showed as much commitment as he would to an opera by Mozart or Janáček, conjuring superb playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra. The silken pair of cornets at the start of the Overture set the bar high from the outset and it was matched consistently throughout. Though he treated Sir Arthur Sullivan’s brilliant score with utmost seriousness and respect, Mackerras was rarely tempted to impose an over-inflated sense of weight; most numbers skipped along with a deliciously light touch and precision.
“Patience” is predominantly Gilbert’s show, but Mackerras did his best to ensure that Sullivan’s genius was given as much opportunity to shine as possible, from the infectious bounce of sprightly ensembles such as ‘If Saphir I chose to marry’, to the divine sextet at the heart of the Act One finale, ‘I hear the soft note’, to its grand conclusion – Sullivan at his most thrillingly Verdian.
Each member of the strong cast played their part with aplomb. It is invidious to single anyone out, but for supreme stage presence and charisma, not to mention an astonishingly still-powerful and rich contralto voice, Felicity Palmer’s embodiment of the formidable Lady Jane (“not pretty – massive”) was a tour de force. Her own cello-playing (more or less in tune) in the dramatic recitative before her sumptuously sung aria at the start of Act Two brought the house down.
Simon Butteriss was an appropriately nervy Bunthorne, all hollow wordsmithery and drama-queen histrionics. His diction in the jolly patter-song ‘If you’re anxious for to shine’ was exemplary, and his comic timing ensured several uproarious moments, such as the conspiratorially delivered line ‘Am I alone and unobserved?’ – knowingly encompassing the many-thousand-strong audience. He had a terrific foil in Toby Stafford-Allen’s narcissistic but highly personable Grosvenor.
The three principal Dragoons, led by Donald Maxwell, were suitably stiff and crass, getting some of the biggest laughs of the night for the hilariously delivered trio in which they painfully adopt the poets’ aesthetic poses. They were matched by well-played maidens; although, due probably to the size of the hall, Pamela Helen Stephen and Sophie-Louise Dann were too often tempted into being hammy, Dann’s music-theatre voice standing out unpleasantly in the ensemble.
Even more irritating was the grating (and unspecific) Northern accent Rebecca Bottone adopted for the title role (“I cannot tell what this lov may be”). Surely we have moved on from the days when a regional accent was considered synonymous with simple-mindedness? But Bottone sang well and, even though she came in a couple of bars early for the second verse of her opening song, her portrayal was confident and sensitive.
The lively semi-staging was simple but effective, as were the principals’ traditional costumes – although which clever-clogs dressed Grosvenor in red and yellow, the same as the Dragoons and the very “primary colours” the maidens say they abhor? Sensibly, the principals were amplified for the dialogue, while the singing was all naturally projected. Recent Gilbert & Sullivan performances at the Proms have been presented apologetically with narration instead of dialogue. Gilbert was thoroughly vindicated with this triumphant “Patience”, which proved indisputably that the biggest success comes from trusting to the authors and presenting the operas as originally intended, free of gimmicks. What the world needs now is more G & S.