Reviewed by G.L. Horton
What Jolly does is perfectly splendid, if slightly less than definitive. In Reginald Bunthorne Jolly plays a young man of birth and property who is addicted to admiration. English ladies this season (1880's) are faddishly mad for Aestheticism, so Bunthorne becomes a poet, and the personal embodiment of an artistic sensibility that exalts medieval simplicity over the crass materialism of imperial England. But we are not to take this sensibility seriously. The ladies are merely Groupies, more pleased to be acting out their transports for their appreciative Sisterhood than they are with Bunthorne's verses or his person. Bunthorne himself confides to us in the audience that his pose is a ruse-- he's "an aesthetic sham", he sings. Jolly is especially good here, his clear diction and clean physical comedy delighting the audience of off-stage fans.
I adore the Aesthetic Movement. I would hate to live in the real Middle Ages, but the Victorian version, a child's fairy tale lavishly illustrated with visionary nymphs and knights palely loitering, their pained expressions denoting romantic angst --or possibly indigestion,-- is one of my favorite places to visit. Prints of the more extreme paintings of Burne-Jones and J W Waterhouse adorn my apartment walls. I find these overwrought images utterly, utterly beautiful, and so ridiculous that when I look at them my appreciative sigh is likely to be followed by a fit of the giggles. It is a similar combination --- the sensual beauty of Sullivan's music and the supreme silliness of Gilbert's libretto -- that I find so attractive in the Savoy operas. In "Patience", this's not only the method, but the subject: which is why this particular opera is a favorite of mine.
Gilbert let it be known--it made for good publicity-- that his model for Bunthorne was Oscar Wilde, but he used the character to take satirical swipes at other instances of the triumph of style over substance. Dress reform, Del Sartean attitudes, the uplift movement determined to take the benefits of higher thought and classical education to the working classes -- all these were mixed into a longing for the simple, the hand made, the whole-hearted. Art's devotees were unabashedly romantic, attempting to revive chivalric ideals and yet insisting that those of lowly station could partake of them on the same terms as the well-to-do. The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted models from the lower classes --- and even married them. Following their lead, Bunthorne has fixed his affections on a simple milkmaid, Patience.
Patience is a good sort. She finds Bunthorne's gloom rather repulsive, but she is willing to believe that that is because she is lacking sensibility. Patience has never been in love, never felt the delicious suffering that Bunthorne's devoted followers feel. Twenty lovesick maidens follow the poet everywhere, wearing aesthetic garb and garlands, basking in his baleful presence and his precious verses.
Patience asks, in song, what can this love can be?
"If love is a thorn, they show no wit
Who foolishly hug and foster it."
Now Sarah Reese, who plays Patience, is a good sort of soprano for a simple heroine. The middle of her voice is rich and sweet, just as one would assume a milkmaid's voice ought to be. Unfortunately Patience is one of those operatic paradoxes, a simple girl who has high-flying ornamentation to sing, and the only way to do it in character is to seem half songbird, warbling as wild as the birds flitting over the Publick's outdoor stage. Opening night Reese wasn't able to do this, especially when standing the width of the stage away from the excellent Jonathan Goldberg's accompaniment. (Alas for the orchestra of yesteryear!) The strain of trying to stay in tune and in sync detracted from Reese's otherwise charming portrayal.
Heidi Dallin as Lady Angela condescends to explain to Patience the charms of romantic, idealized love. In a winning display of simple friendship, she tells Patience that anyone can be raised to human perfection by this highest of emotions, even a lowly milkmaid. But, Angela warns, "Love to be pure must be unselfish". Patience resolves to give Love a chance. But when love walks into her life, in the irresistibly handsome form of Bunthorne's rival poet, Archibald Grosvenor, the "Apostle of Simplicity," Patience's new-found idealism forces her to reject it and him. Even though Archibald was her childhood playmate, and has loved her faithfully though the fifteen years since they parted at the age of five, his physical perfection rules him out as a love object. What spiritual advantage is there in loving a rich man who inspires admiration in the soul of every woman who looks upon him? And alas, Grosvenor cannot in good conscience mask his perfection to win his milkmaid. He realizes that beauty such as his is a sacred trust, and he is merely his beauty's trustee. Mark Light-Orr makes a sympathetic Grosvenor in his Christopher Robin wig, and for once the poet is believably just twenty years old. Even terrible poetry and monumental self-appreciation can be forgiven one so recently adolescent.
The infatuated aesthetes of the ladies' chorus are a perplexity to the men's chorus, a troupe of Her Majesty's 35th Dragoon Guards. Just last year they were happily engaged to these same ladies and now they find that their shiny helmets and bright red and gold uniforms an offense to the poetically medieval eye.
The soldiers sing
"Is not this ridiculous and is not this preposterous?
A thorough-paced absurdity, explain it if you can!"
The Heavy Dragoon is manly perfection. All the admirable elements of Victorian heroes are combined in each specimen of Dragoonhood, as the Colonel explains in his song: The "pluck of Lord Nelson" the "genius of Bismarck". William Gardiner, the brisk and vigorous Falstaff in the Publick's "Merry Wives" of New Orleans last season, is truly a Colonel to contend with. Gardiner has an interpolated, updated, verse to sing, and one can only wish that he had more. What can these ladies be thinking of, to neglect this virile source of not-so-innocent merriment?
However, Dared Wright should probably get the consolation prize for most neglected. As the Major he has little to do but look handsome and fill in the middle part. He does this very well, but it's a real comedown from his Petruchio in "Kiss Me Kate". John Middleton as the Dragoon Duke who longs to escape the incessant sycophancy associated with his superior birth has a bit more to do; and he does it all in a lovely tenor voice. When the trio decide that the only way to win their ladies is to doff their uniforms and dress aesthetically, their military characters have been well-established enough that even the confusing in-joke of dressing them in left-over costumes from other G & S operettas doesn't spoil the fun.
The costumes are all right, generally. But in this comedy about taste in dress (among other things, of course) oughtn't the costumes to be spectacular? Bunthorne wears his traditional yuk-green velvet , the Dragoons are duly uniformed. The overripe Lady Jane horn-helmeted as Brunhilda, Goddess of Toughlove, is amusing, and the touches tiny Monica Tosches added to her characterization under her statuesque costuming's influence only added frills to a role Tosches already fills to perfection. But the aesthetic ladies' costumes weren't up to par -- particularly the sarong-like numbers in peach satin-- and I can't help thinking that besides shivering in the unseasonably cool weather the young ladies were also less emotionally warm than such delightful creatures should have been -- simply because their highly developed aesthetic sense told them that they weren't looking as well as they might have.