The Pre-Raphaelite movement, if Patience is anything to go by, must have drawn hoots in the Gilbert household. Aesthetes were all the rage in the 19th century, their demeanour inspired by Lord Byron and his self-denying diet of cabbage and cider. Society ladies would swoon over moony poets, the sallower the better, perhaps because they were sexually unthreatening. But what lay behind the gentlemen's epicene façade? This frolicsome opera has an idea.
Sullivan's score is one of his finest, a filigree of harmonic lyricism shot through with pungent, audience-pleasing earworms; but while the silly story is a customary G&S confection, it lacks something that's present in the most enduring Savoy operas such as The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and that's a hook for our empathy. Amid the nonsense we actually care about Mabel and Frederic's on-off union and want to believe the romance between Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo. In Patience, not so much.
So if it were done, then 'twere well it were done slickly. And it is, by director-choreographer Liam Steel, who matches the bliss of his Gianni Schicchi (also for English Touring Opera) with a night of tip-top comedy that's wrapped in musical splendour by a sparkling company of singers and ETO's stylish orchestra under Timothy Burke.
This Patience gets nearly everything right, and while Florence de Maré's William Morris-inspired set is a bit of a dampener—the combination of jade and grey neither gaudy nor neutral, just dour—at least it's practical and avoids the pitfalls of her Tosca mis-step. Costumes are fun, especially the foppish garb worn by Bradley Travis (Bunthorne) and Ross Ramgobin (Grosvenor). Like the show as a whole, it's after the interval that this willowy pair come into their own with a rousingly staged patter duet: "A most intense young man/A soulful-eyed young man/An ultra-poetical, super-æsthetical/Out-of-the-way young man".
'Buzzes with energy and eye-pleasing entertainment'
Andrew Slater and Aled Hall mug nicely as two Dragoon buffoons, while Valerie Reid lifts spinsterish Lady Jane above the Katisha mould into something more three-dimensional. Ingeniously, Steel sidesteps Gilbert's fat-shaming lyrics by handing the svelte mezzo a double bass (rather than the designated cello) to embody her lament that "There will be too much of me in the coming by-and-by".
The director's disciplined physicality ensures that his show buzzes with energy and eye-pleasing entertainment. And if attempts at cut-glass accents are a mixed bag, at least they carry conviction. It's a real treat after ENO's lettuce-limp Pirates that Gilbert's creaky dialogue comes across with such new-minted freshness, particularly by Ramgobin whose gift for comedy is as warm as the gorgeous baritone that earned him a nod in the 2015 WhatsOnStage Opera Poll.
The show's star, if there has to be just one, is Lauren Zolezzi, and not just because she has the title role. As Patience the Australian soprano is sassy, funny and charismatic, with pinpoint vocal accuracy and a bright timbre that lets every word be heard. Indeed, it's hard to see why this expertly sung production needs surtitles at all when even the first-rate chorus articulates so snappily.
Patience showcases ETO at its very best. For its quality and its ubiquity it is not to be missed. Do yourself a favour and don't.
There is a further performance of Patience at the Hackney Empire on 10 March. It then tours to Poole, Sheffield, Bromley, Snape, York, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Buxton, Warwick, Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Truro and Norwich until 3 June.