Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Prom 35 - Patience

Tuesday's performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience was billed as a semi-staging, directed by Martin Duncan. But what we got was far more than that. Sir Charles Mackerras and the BBC Concert Orchestra were seated at the back of the stage giving a wide but shallow acting area. All of the principals were costumed and sang off the book, the men and women of the chorus did their opening number in staged fashion (off the book) and then retired to the bleachers to sing from scores, whilst still managing to remain involved in proceedings.

Despite the Albert Hall's unhelpful acoustic, Mackerras managed to keep things moving in sparkling fashion, bringing out the Rossinian elements of Sullivan's score. For the faster numbers Mackerras's speeds seemed to be as fast as he dared, given the acoustical problems, and the cast kept up and gave us some brilliant patter.

Duncan treated the plot seriously and essayed no updating or modish devices. Costumes were all traditional and Carl Rosa Opera were top of the costume credits at the back of the programme. This meant that Ladies Angela, Ella and Saphir (Pamela Helen Stephen, Elena Xanthoudakis and Sophie-Louise Dann) were all in long neo-Victorian Liberty print shifts. Lady Jane (the redoubtable Felicity Palmer) was in more muted Victoriana, complete with small train. The military men (Donald Maxwell, Graeme Danby and Bonaventura Bottone) were in pukka Victorian military gear. Patience herself (Rebecca Bottone) was in classic 18th century milkmaid guise and the two poets (Simon Butteriss and Toby Stafford-Allen) were all in floppy velvet. Butteriss as Bunthorne sported an amazing curly wig whilst Stafford-Allen was all floppy hair.

Butteriss was a revelation as Bunthorne. He brought all the right mannerisms to the role, but sang with remarkably depth of tone. It is worth bearing in mind that ENO's last Bunthorne, Derek Hammond Stroud, was known to sing Bunthorne and Alberich on alternate nights. As his fellow poet Grosvenor, Stafford-Allen probably had the lovelier voice. But the two of them formed a neat complement to each other and Butteriss impressed with the way he played the Albert Hall auditorium as if it was a far smaller theatre. When playing scenes together Butteriss and Stafford-Allen develop both rapport and patter in a way which suggested a far longer rehearsal period than this staging could have had.

In fact, the whole cast impressed with the way they seemed to have developed a fine ensemble piece despite tightness of schedules. The three ladies (Stephen, Xanthoudakis and Dann) created three distinct personalities for themselves and indulged in some enjoyable hi-jinks. All three seemed to have a turn for comedy, especially Xanthoudakis. This was just as well, because Felicity Palmer, as Lady Jane, gave a masterclass in comic delivery and timing. Her solo with cello solo (which she really played) was finely delivered. Palmer allowed you to both laugh at Lady Jane and feel sorry for her; partly I think because Sullivan's music modifies Gilbert's rather jaundiced view of the elderly female character.

As the three military men, Maxwell, Danby and Bottone were frankly rather too old for the part. But in compensation they brought a wealth of comic experience and were simply hilarious, whether as stiff necked military men or as cod aesthetes. Veteran tenor Robert Tear made a cameo appearance as Bunthorne's solicitor.

In the title role, Rebecca Bottone impressed with her perky character (Patience is no shy violet) combined with a lovely lyric voice. She spoke the dialogue in a vaguely Northern accent, but sensibly did not try to sing in the same manner. Whilst the opera does not entirely depend on the title role, Rebecca Bottone ensured the ensemble had just the right personality its centre.

The opera's plot seems to have worn pretty well, Gilbert pokes fun mainly at aestheticism and posing, but manages other comic darts along the way. Though some details have aged, the general targets are as current as ever.

Patience is one of the G&S canon that Mackerras has not recorded, on this showing someone should be ushering him and his cast into the studio as soon as possible

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