Prom 35: Gilbert and Sullivan Patience, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

There’s a moment in Gilbert and Sullivan’s glorious parody of fickle fashion and the pretensions of the Aesthetic movement where Reginald Bunthorne asks – “in confidence”, you understand - “Am I alone and unobserved?”

Picked out by a dazzling spotlight and with six thousand pairs of eyes and ears scrutinising him it’s what you might call a big laugh for a bigger venue. And if you’d still had your doubts about the Victorian grandeur of the Albert Hall over the intimacies of the Savoy Theatre (where Patience was the opening production), then consider Lady Jane’s displeasure over the unfashionably vulgar look of her lovelorn Dragoons’ uniforms: “Red and Yellow! Primary colours! Oh, South Kensington!” Now tell me we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You can’t ask for a whole lot more than this delicious slice of English eccentricity played out in full costume (director Martin Duncan) under the sprightly baton of the world’s leading Savoyard, Sir Charles Mackerras, any more than you can deny that G & S’s withering satire on the wiles of fashion is somehow itself out of fashion. The language may have changed but the fads live on. It’s actually been 33 years since Mackerras conducted the Proms premiere of Patience and his feisty way with Sullivan’s delicious score – Sir Charles’ favourite, I believe – has lost none of its bounce, elegance, or charm. We were duly snared from the moment the BBC Concert Orchestra trumpets, in close harmony, took us out of ourselves to balmy afternoons by the bandstand and the chugging rhythms of Sullivan’s most insidiously catchy showstopper “So go to him and say to him with compliment ironical” took hold.

To say that the casting was vintage certainly applied to the Lady Jane of Felicity Palmer whose “rugged old bosom” (Gilbert’s words, not mine) was carried with supreme artistry through all Gilbert’s jokes about overripe fruit on the turn. Her big recitative and solo, “Sad is that woman’s lot”, replete with her sourly tuned cello, brought to mind Sir Thomas Beecham’s crack about the most beautiful instrument known to man residing between her legs – and all she can do is scratch it.

Among the other “lovesick maidens” Sophie-Louise Dann’s Lady Saphir was a wicked, husky-voiced, scene-stealer while the objects of their indifference – the military men – came in a trio of stalwarts, Donald Maxwell, Graeme Danby, and Bonaventura Bottone whose “turn” at transforming themselves into Oscar Wilde-ish aesthetes struck increasingly crippling attitudes.

The central joke is that we get two aesthetes for the price of one – one a fraud, the other not – though, of course, quite indistinguishable from each other. Simon Butteriss’s Bunthorne, repeatedly crushed as surely as the foppish velvet of his suit, was razor sharp and redefined extravagance with his ill-rhyming couplets; Toby Stafford-Allen’s Grosvenor took conceit to new heights.

And sweet-voiced Rebecca Bottone (Patience) who “cannot tell what this love may be” but spins her bewilderment in two of the most exquisite numbers Sullivan ever wrote. Only the musically insensitive or cloth-eared could balk at those.