Of milkmaids in Mountain View
There is nothing quite like the frothy comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. That unlikely pair joined forces to write fourteen endearing operas over their long career, bridging high art with popular appeal and plastering them heavily with distressed damsels, fevered wit and the bumbling forces of the law.
Lamplighters Music Theatre brought one of their more popular gems, Patience… or Bunthorne’s Bride, to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts last Saturday, Feb. 18, and though the material was dated, its enchantment was fresh.
David Möchsler conducted a small but strong group of musicians with a steady hand, although at times the show would have benefitted from a little abandon. Indeed, there were moments when both musicians and singers strained at the leash to move it along just a tad more briskly. Nonetheless, that even gait allowed the words to be delivered with such clarity that the supertitles – in place just for the songs – were rarely necessary.
This show requires strong leads and a solid chorus, and we were gifted with both. The Lamplighters are known for the caliber of their chorus members, who need to be strong dancers and actors while they sing. And that singing is a curious thing: British light opera is halfway between Italian-style opera and American musical theatre, but the voices still need to have serious classical training along with a touch of that brazen quality that is developed in musical theater. In that, Ellen Leslie was an excellent fit for the role of the milkmaid, Patience, with acrobatic high notes and a tight vibrato.
Chris Uzelac was her polar pairing as Reginald Bunthorne, pretending to faint at the Glory of Nature in one moment and calculating his audience of lovesick maidens in the next. The dramatic action – and love triangle – was completed by tenor Samuel Faustine as Archibald Grosvenor, who captured the dreamy airs and perfect narcissism of an “Idyllic Poet.”
And stealing the show was Sonia Gariaeff as Lady Jane, whose sturdy frame and delicious contralto voice brought us back to earth when the fops became too much. In particular, her aria “Silvered is the raven hair” brought long cheers, especially when she sawed away on a cello as she worked to embody a Greek muse with lyre.
After an overture that established a feeling of frisky holiday, the curtain opened on a frozen tableaux of sixteen maidens in a glory of petticoats and swooning arms. There were ooh’s and aah’s from the audience until they broke the pose into their first song, “Twenty love-sick maidens we.” Their tight tuning and clean accord was a harbinger of a delightful evening to come.
Also standing out among that cast were enchanting tenor Taylor Rawley and the grave hijinks of bass Charles Martin. And propelling the production were the sumptuous costumes by Melissa Wortman and Miriam Lewis.
Patience is a lampoon of a curious late nineteenth century phenomenon, the British fad of Aestheticism, where young men minced about professing their love for the arts. And just to be clear, their search was not some searing artistic inquiry, but a full-blown Neo-classical retreat, a longing for simple truths where art is beauty and beauty art. The languid posturing of those poets made them ripe for parody.
In ridiculing that short-lived artistic fad, Gilbert and Sullivan were also questioning their own art: whether Gilbert’s poetry was more interested in the clever than in the deep, or whether Sullivan’s light-hearted melodies were really serious composing. That may have been a question with which Sullivan in particular struggled, but the marvel of their works is that within their comedic forms they shine a rather penetrating light into the human heart.
Photo top, from left, of Samuel Faustine, Ellen Leslie and Chris Uzelac; photo by David Allen. Below, of Sonia Gariaeff as Lady Jane; photo by Lucas Buxman. The principal roles were double cast, and these are from the 2/18 performance.