Patience may not be the best known of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but it’s near the top of my list of favourites and it was great to see that English Touring Opera had chosen it as their first ever G&S piece. I caught its second performance at the Hackney Empire on 10th March.
It’s an interesting piece in their canon. It’s probably the most directly satirical of a particular idea. It’s also one of the few without an obvious romantic couple and, for that reason, may be probably Gilbert’s finest libretto. You don’t have to have seen Topsy Turvy to suspect that he probably had a deep cynicism about romantic love and this, piece, with barely a sympathetic character in it enable him to poke fun at ideas, at pomposity at self-indulgence – which is what he did best.
I’m very, very fond of Sullivan’s score. There’s a lot of really beautiful music here: from the simply gorgeous opening interesting to that rather gorgeous sextet, I hear the soft note of the echoing voice, and the teasing Long years ago, it’s all glorious stuff. Perhaps, however, it shows more than most the way in which Sullivan undermines Gilbert’s satire by producing music that is absolutely serious. I find this tension one of the most interesting things about their partnership.
This was a very good performance of it, indeed. It was a joy to read Timothy Burkes’s appreciation of the score in his programme note. He conducted it with love, perhaps with a slightly gentler edge to it than, say, Mackerras or even Isidore Godfrey for the old D’Oyly Carte, but the music sounded as good as it should.
And the cast was excellent. I hugely enjoyed Lauren Zolezzi’s Patience. As the one individual with anything like common sense, she caught the intelligence of the character and sang really well: a lovely light soprano who can sing words with taste and spirit – probably the best Patience that I’ve heard. Bradley Travis played Bunthorne as the heartless, self-indulgent popinjay that he is andmade the most of his arias. Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor gave one of the best acting performances that I’ve in Gilbert and Sullivan. His way with the dialogue was incredibly assured and he gave an object lesson in how to make intelligible and funny without guying it. I was slightly less taken by his voice – there’s a bit of work to be done there.
Valerie Reid made an excellent Lady Jane – notably older than the other ladies, with the right wry sense of humour and she had a nice way with her double bass in Silvered is the raven hair – is there a better example of Sullivan ignoring the sheer nastiness of Gilbert’s text? Gaynor Keeble was a strong Lady Angela, seconded admirably by Suzanne Fischer as Saphir (Ella was cut – no great loss).
Andrew Slater was as good as you’d hope as Colonel Calverley – managing the two patter songs really well and maintaining just the right element of bemused outsrage. Aled Hall didn’t make as much of the Duke as he could have done and I’ve heard more lyrical singing. Chorus and orchestra were excellent and this was a really excellent, loving, musical performance.
Liam Steel directed. It was a firmly traditional production: set in that Victorian/aesthetic/pre-Raphaelite look that, doubtless, Gilbert intended. I enjoyed the alert direction of the dialogue and the words (even if there were rather more glitches about those than you’d expect at this performance). There were lots of deft touches (Patience seemed the only person able to lift anything) and there was pelnty of fun with flowers. This was a production which would not upset anyone who thought that D’Oyly Carte, c. 1960 was the acme of perfection. And, on its own terms it was really enjoyable. I was smiling throughout and enjoying the opportunity to see the opera again.
And yet I had doubts. If you’d never seen G&S before, would you think that this was an outstanding example of their wit and satire? Did the business and moves not look a bit like what you’d get from a very good school or amateur performance? There are enough example of pretension and fatuousness in our time for this piece to have much greater resonance than it did here. You can also, I think, be a bit more outrageous with You hold yourself like this. I enjoyed it because I love the piece and, I suspect, there are enough people who feel the same way for this to be a success. But don’t you need a bit more; a bit more flair and brilliance to persuade people that this isn’t a museum piece of limited interest. I was sitting next to a ten or eleven year old boy with his parents. I really wondered if there was enough there to engage him (I don’t think there was). A more modern approach might have been even more fun.
That’s the only cavil. On its own terms, it’s a lovely, intelligent, musically delightful performance. Anyone who enjoys G&S, let alone Patience, will love it and I do hope ETO decide to do some more. We’re crying out for Iolanthe.