There is a good reason why Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (or “operas” as they called them) are always with us. When well sung, well acted, well directed and elegantly staged, there are few works anywhere that provide greater entertainment for a wider audience, from schoolchildren to pensioners. No librettist ever offered wittier or more beautifully shaped lyrics, with more intricate rhyme schemes than W. S. Gilbert.
Arthur Sullivan was the leading English composer of the late 19th century until the arrival of Elgar. But his many attempts to offer the kind of serious music that eminent Victorians desired often led to mere earnestness, however competent. It was in writing for the comic stage that his real genius shone. As the first winner of the “Mendelssohn scholarship” to study in Leipzig, he naturally picked up the style predominant there in the 1860s. But near the end of Sullivan’s life, George Bernard Shaw compared him to Tannhäuser in Wagner’s opera, torn between the sensuousness of Venus and the purity of the later beatified Elisabeth: “Offenbach was his Venus as Mendelssohn was his St. Elisabeth.” Happily for us, as Shaw noted, Sullivan eventually “outdid Offenbach in wickedness.”
Last night’s Patience, presented by Odyssey Opera under the direction of Gil Rose and staged by Frank Kelley, was simply a triumph, receiving the kind of audience response that would have delighted Gilbert and Sullivan themselves when the work first appeared in 1881.
What makes any Gilbert and Sullivan show work as well, as Patience does in this production is the presence of real singers who are also fine actors. That seems obvious enough, but many have been the productions of these works in which good comic actors have lacked the voice or good singers did not have the acting chops. Such was not the case in the Odyssey Opera production.
In the principal male roles of the rival poets Bunthorne and Grosvenor, Aaron Engebreth and Paul Max Tipton were perfect foils for one another in their different “aesthetic” styles. Engebreth was the moody and fitful poet, pretending to be aesthetic in order to attract a crowd of young female followers. His “poetic” mannerisms and his costume – an avocado velvet suit, long hair, with a long-stemmed flower in his hand – was gloriously parodistic, and funnier still when he explicitly reveals to the audience that he is phony. Tipton, as Grosvenor, plays his character’s amour-propre for all that it is worth, made all the funnier because it seems to be essentially innocent on his part.
Sara Heaton is delicious in the title role, her vocal purity and sweetness, suggesting innocence and honest directness, carry her through her many misunderstandings of the true meaning of love. She is especially touching in the poignant “Love is a plaintive song.”
James Maddalena brings years of experience as a singing actor to the role of Col. Calverley, a sturdy British officer with all the sense of entitlement that come with the rank, yet amusingly confused about the ladies’ passion for an aesthetic poet. He could run off the recipe for a Heavy Dragoon in Gilbert’s complicated patter lyrics and in the next moment show he was fully in charge of his regiment. His second act attempt to try appearing aesthetic was a highlight.
Gilbert and Sullivan tenors all too often sound reedy and underpowered. This was not at all the case with Steven Goldstein, who filled the role of the Duke of Dunstable most happily, both in his lyric tenor, which had a lovely float, and in his stalwart acting as the smallest, yet socially most prominent, of the soldiers. The third of the officers, Major Murgatroyd, was smartly played by Sumner Thompson, whose voice and antics beautifully matched those of the other two officers.
The three soloists from among the “rapturous maidens” of the chorus set the aesthetic scene splendidly: Jaime Korkos (Lady Angela) explained in comic/tragic tone of the ladies’ hopeless love, and she was splendid in the charming duet “Long years ago,” in which she persuaded Patience that she actually had loved a male once—when she was four years old! Sara Womble (Lady Ella) had the small but passionate outburst “Go, breaking heart,” to which she gave the full measure of rapturous disillusion. Heather Gallagher (Lady Saphir) was a lively participant, with Angela and the three officers, in the cheerful mathematical conundrum “If Saphir I choose to marry.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest hit in the show was made by Janna Baty as Lady Jane. This would be no surprise to anyone who has heard her in previous performances here in which she showed both her vocal art and her remarkable acting ability. I particularly remember the tragic role of the Duchess, extremely challenging both musically and dramatically, in Thomas Adés’s Powder Her Face in 2003, and the extremely funny performance of the widow Popova in William Walton’s The Bear two years ago. The surprise comes because Lady Jane is one of those older female characters, of whom it is often said that Gilbert was cruel in their dramatic treatment. To be sure, Jane is considerably older than the other lovesick maidens of the chorus, yet she has a strength superior to any of them, and a common sense beyond theirs. And in the person of Janna Baty, the role of Lady Jane has an actress/singer who can play it for full strength and full comic effect.
From the earliest production Lady Jane’s song “Silvered is the raven hair,” introduced by a recitative
Sad is that woman’s lot who year by year,
Sees one by one her beauties disappear…
was usually performed with the actress holding a double bass, or perhaps a cello, in order to mime the bass line of the orchestra, which is by turns both poignant and dramatic. Until this production, I had never seen Lady Jane actually play the cello while singing the number. It seems that Janna Baty studied cello as a girl, though she says she has not touched it for well over a quarter-century. Nonetheless, her determined performance on the instrument played right into the character of Lady Jane and made the number one of the highlights of the show. So overwhelming was the audience response that she actually broke character and returned to the stage to take a bow before the show could continue. And, amidst a cast received with great enthusiasm during the curtain calls, the response to her appearance was utterly ecstatic.
Of course, as important as any of the solo singers in a Gilbert and Sullivan production of the male and female choruses. Until the final number men’s and women’s choruses are entirely different in musical character and personality: the soft, droopiness of the lovesick maidens contrasted brilliantly with the beefy masculinity of the Dragoon Guards. The sonority, tone, and diction – to say nothing of their stage presence, and acting – play just a stronger role in enlivening the operetta as that of the principals. The chorus master was Lina Gonzalez
Frank Kelley, the stage director, is well known in Boston musical circles for many years of varied activity as a tenor. This was his first appearance as a director for Odyssey Opera, though he actually appeared in a singing role in the first opera of this Oscar Wilde-based season. But in Patience showed real talent in a new capacity, with an excellent sense of directing actors for comic effect and employing the space on the stage when there is a large mass of people moving around, as always happens with two choruses and soloists in a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Seeing this hitherto hidden talent revealed so effectively is one of the specific pleasures of this production.
Gil Rose’s range as organizer and conductor of Odyssey Opera (as well, as of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) is so well known that it hardly needs reporting here, except to say that once again he has chosen musicians of exceptional quality for the stage, as well as a first-rate orchestra of modest size (twenty-seven instruments — fourteen strings balanced by six winds, six brass, and one percussion) to play Sullivan’s marvelous orchestrations. His theatrical timing, too, is also well known. In this performance, responding to audience enthusiasm, he allowed two encores, to the audience’s delight: the duet of Bunthorne and Lady Jane, and the duet of Bunthorne and Grosvenor.
Choreography—both delicate and amusing—was by Larry Sousa. Dan Daly designed the two sets, both with an “aesthetic” feel to them. Costumes by Amanda Mujica, with hair and make-up designs by Rachel Padula-Shufelt equally captured the spirit of the piece with variety, charm, and wit. Christopher Ostrom did the lighting design.
It is a shame that Patience runs only twice because it should be seen by many, many people, especially audiences relatively new to the theater who may not know the work of Gilbert and Sullivan at all, and who would be amazed and delighted by effects produced in the old “simple” style of theatrical production, with only one set per act, and emphasis on the witty story, the brilliant words, and the ever-delightful music.
Patience was the perfect ending to an Oscar Wilde-based season that offered an opera based on his one novel, another setting a compact form of most famous play, and a third based on a short story. Finally we end with a work in which he was possibly parodied to some degree, and also involved in its marketing and fame.
But most of all, Patience was simply an utterly delightful evening in the theater, whether for Savoyards of long standing or newcomers to this brilliant repertory.
Ed. Note: A paragraph on the three soloists from among the “rapturous maidens” chorus accidentally deleted from the the original submission has been restored.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.