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Friday, June 13, 2014

Showing Patience

From the Vault Dept.: I’m a huge fan of the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. Thus it is I rarely find satisfaction with the productions I see – in fact, I avoid them. But the Glimmerglass Opera’s Patience, staged a decade ago, was unusually satisfying, and my review explains why.

IT’S IRONIC THAT A SPOOF of the aesthetic movement should survive more durably than the movement itself. But Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience is the most topical of their many operas, a fact that has worked against its own longevity.

Patience at Glimmerglass, 2004
Nevertheless, the spectacle of two tortured poets beloved by the village’s “twenty lovesick maidens,” scattering poesy to their adorers remains risible, especially when contrasted with the officers of dragoon guards who used to be the town’s romantic cynosures.

Glimmerglass Opera has a long tradition of G&S productions, which is commendable, but those also can be dangerous waters to navigate. G&S fans tend to be fanatics in the truest sense of the word, prizing particular performances and demanding no less than the same damn thing over and over. To indulge them is dangerous: they encourage the worst excesses of operatic overacting, and there’s nobody in the theatrical pantheon more likely to overact than an opera singer.

(I should note that I’m another, possibly worse, type of G&S fanatic. I prize the integrity and inherent comedy of the scripts and scores and especially abjure the stale D’Oyly Carte performance style clogged with cloying silliness that’s revered as being “traditional.”)

Director Tazewell Thompson, whose brilliant work with Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites wowed us two seasons ago, deserves great credit for re-imagining Patience in a more unique style than tradition would suggest. His twenty lovesick maidens – thirteen of them, actually, not counting Lady Jane, but excusable on the grounds (to quote former D’Oyly Carte director Frederic Lloyd when he was threatened with violating the Trades Descriptions Act) that all twenty needn’t be onstage at the same time – were never made to seem more ridiculous than the script requires, and the dragoons, too often played as embarrassing bumblers, actually seemed like a military regiment. By today’s standards, anyway.

In their characterizations of the poet Bunthorne and his arch-rival Grosvenor, tenor Jeffrey Lentz and bass Kevin Burdette gave wonderfully true-to-form performances, with skilled voices that made their singing the difficult numbers seem effortless. A highlight of the show in both musical and dramatic terms was their Act Two dialogue and duet (“When I go out of door”), that also featured the best dance number of the piece.

But here’s where the G&S let’s-overdo-it disease descends. The number was given an unspontaneous encore, and fell apart as the duo exceeded their dancing ability. Unfortunately, there’s an audience contingent that always will cheer aggressive stumbling.

A choreographer was sorely needed. In the second act trio for the lead dragoons – the Duke (Darren T. Anderson), Colonel Calverly (Jake Gardner) and Major Murgatroyd (Christopher Burchett), it was clear that, while the acting and singing was impressively strong, only Burchett had real dancing experience. Such an imbalance, embarrassing to watch, could be smoothed by the right dance director. Kudos to Gardner, by the way, for navigating the incredibly tough “If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,” a patter song so filled with fast-passing bygone references that even the supertitles (always in insult to the audience) didn’t try to keep up.

Weakest in the cast was soprano Sarah Coburn as the innocent milkmaid Patience. Coburn is a brilliant singer, but I’m going to blame the fact that she never conveyed a credible characterization on the fact that she was undone by unsuccessfully trying to affect a lower-class English accent. And the silly running gag she was handed about milk containers belonged in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, not in this production.

Making an effective gag out of stage business is always a difficult challenge, made worse when there’s over a century of “tradition” behind it. Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle is always a welcome addition to a cast, but as the self-consciously aging Lady Jane she had to open Act Two with a song sung to her own cello accompaniment, a Sullivanian parody of an Italian opera technique.

Although it’s not required of the singer, Castle actually played the thing and played it fairly well before getting goofy with it, when the arc of a good gag dictates the opposite: she should have finished with triumphant mastery of the instrument.

The set, by Donald Eastman, eschewed the usual verdant grounds of Castle Bunthorne in favor of a bare stage with a large box in the center, one side of which was the house exterior, the other an all-purpose room. It proved distractingly unwieldy, and even the device of staging Bunthorne’s “Am I alone ... ?” on the rooftop didn’t redeem it.

Andrew Bisantz conducted the orchestra, which couldn’t possibly have sounded better.

Patience by Gilbert & Sullivan; Glimmerglass Opera, July 31
Directed by Tazewell Thompson; Conducted by Andrew Bisantz

Metroland Magazine, 5 August 2004

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