BBC Proms reviews

Prom 35: BBC Concert Orchestra/Mackerras @ Royal Albert Hall, London

11 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

I have never thought that Gilbert and Sullivan works well semi-staged, but this performance of Patience certainly fared better than most.

To be sure, like HMS Pinafore in 2005 and Iolanthe in 2000, projection suffered in the Albert Hall’s vast interior. When so much of the humour is derived from the words these cannot be inaudible for a moment, and although the libretto in the programme helped, I often found myself missing a visual gag in the second it took to stare at it.

And given that musically Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas have nothing on the average Mozart opera (I speak as a fan) comparatively more is lost when the associated drama is cut. In this instance, the problem was compounded because although the entrances of both the male and female choruses (drawn from the Chorus of English National Opera) were colourfully choreographed, both groups then retreated to stand in two lines and sing from folders for the rest of the evening.

But this shouldn’t detract from the quality of the playing and solo performances that were offered up. Sir Charles Mackerras (who has conducted Gilbert and Sullivan here before) extracted both a virtuoso classical sound and the necessary playfulness from the BBC Concert Orchestra that made the Overture a thing of joy in strict musical terms, never mind the excitement and sense of anticipation that it always generates.

Nor was any expense spared on the cast who, aided by Estelle Butler’s sumptuous costumes, captured the true essence of this satire on nineteenth-century aestheticism. Simon Butteriss was highly engaging as the poet Reginald Bunthorne. Applying just the right bend to his body, tilt to his head and simpering quality to his utterances, he provided an effective contrast to his rival, Archibald Grosvenor (Toby Stafford-Allen), a more upstanding man who in the plot is perfection personified.

Elsewhere, three old hands – Felicity Palmer as Lady Jane, Donald Maxwell as the Colonel and Bonaventura Bottone as the Duke – stood out, although the younger female principals certainly held their own against them. Rebecca Bottone was an effective Patience combining a fine milkmaid’s accent with a strong soprano voice, whilst Pamela Helen Stephen, Elena Xanthoudakis and Sophie-Louise Dann as the three maidens who fall for any aesthetic man they come across successfully tinted their glee with a strong hint of irony.

All in all, I still don’t feel that Gilbert and Sullivan can ever be experienced at its best semi-staged, but the audience didn’t seem to mind, and this was as good a performance as is ever likely to be found at the Proms.

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