Sunday, February 5, 2017

Lamplighters Deftly Delivers Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Topsy-Turvy” Take on Poets and Peasants

Once again the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre is hosting the Lamplighters Music Theatre, which specializes in staging the comic operas created by the memorable partnership of author W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The current production is Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride; and one performance remains this afternoon at 2 p.m., for which tickets are still available. Patience is a relatively early work, first performed at the Opera Comique in London on April 23, 1881. It was successful enough to become the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera to be performed at the Savoy Theatre, where performances began on October 10 of the same year. Patience also has the distinction of being the first theatrical production in the world to be lit entirely by electric light.

As usual the libretto deals with class distinction. In this case the ladies of the landed gentry have been swept away by aestheticism, appointing themselves acolytes of the “fleshy” poet Reginald Bunthorne They had previously been engaged to Officers of the Dragoon Guards (one of whom is the Duke of Dunstable). This is the male chorus of the opera, and they quickly discover that all commitments to matrimony have been broken, thanks to Bunthorne’s spell. As might be guessed, Bunthorne’s first solo aria reveals that he is a fraud, only in it for the adulation.

To the consternation of the ladies of the land, Bunthorne only has eyes for the dairy maid Patience, who has absolutely no interest in poetry. Nor does she show much interest in love except for a childhood playmate, Archibald Grosvenor. It turns out that grown-up Archibald is another poet (“idyllic”) with a bad case of vanity. After two full acts of topsy-turvy plot twists and an abundance of delightful music, the ladies return to their dragoons, Archibald abandons his poetry and vanity for Patience, and Bunthorne is left with his art (so to speak).

Perhaps because of the presence of the poets, the text for Patience has a generous supply of arcane references. The Glossary page of the program book (based on Harry Benford’s The Gilbert & Sullivan Lexicon) seemed denser than usual. The other useful criterion comes from the amount of annotation in Ian Bradley’s The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan. The page space for the annotations for “If you want a receipt for that popular mystery” takes up about 30% more column inches than the text of the song itself. The annotations for “When I go out of door” are not quite as abundant, but they come close. It is also worth observing that the poems that Grosvenor reads to the ladies (after they have abandoned Bunthorne for him) bear a strong family resemblance to some of Gilbert’s own Bab Ballads.

In spite of this complexity, Lamplighters came through with a delightfully accessible account of a story whose silliness may well have inspired Monty Python at its best. As usual the production was double cast. At yesterday afternoon’s performance the title role was taken by Jennifer Mitchell sporting a rural accent that emphasized the role of class distinction in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. Her crystalline soprano voice thus contrasted sharply with the effect of her spoken text; but, as always, the heart of the show is in the music. However, it is also worth noting that, even when singing, Mitchell’s sense of body language was always right on the money.

Equally impressive was Anne Hubble’s Lady Jane, the eldest (by a long shot) of Bunthorne’s followers. Gilbert suggested that Jane’s artistic sensitivities ran deeper than her younger rivals by giving her a cello to play. Hubble had no trouble milking every comic ounce out of Jane’s ineptitude with this instrument; and, when she wasn’t playing, she could wield her instrument like a cudgel.

Bunthorne was played by F. Lawrence Ewing, who has become somewhat of a veteran in this role. Unless I am mistaken, this is the second time I have seen him take the part; and his delivery of the role was clearly grounded in understanding based on rich experience. Bunthorne may not deserve much sympathy; but, as Ewing presented the role yesterday afternoon, he definitely deserves the full measure of our attention. Of course the overall success of the production would not have been possible without the imaginative stage direction of Barbara Heroux and her keen ability to keep things moving even when large choral forces are in play, as well as the brisk conducting by David Möschler.

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