Promming at the Royal Albert Hall
Before leaving London after a long summer vacation, I managed a brief glimpse at the BBC Proms, one of the world’s largest classical music festivals. The Proms, which celebrated its 115th anniversary this summer, is a two-month extravaganza with over 100 concerts and events that span the classical music spectrum from the arcane and distinguished to the popular and raucous. The bulk of the concerts are held at the Royal Albert Hall, a massive hunk of Victoriana the size and capacity of a sports arena. To fill the Albert Hall is to fill almost 6,000 seats.
Some of the hall’s spectators, however, stand: the famous “prommers” who for a few pounds stand in the large circle of floor in front of the stage, drinking in music with avid devotion.
So, short of the Savoy Theater, where else would one want to see and hear Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience?
The aesthetics of satire
Patience satirizes the Aesthetics movement, the preferred fashion ideology among artistic young gentlemen of the late Victorian age, which posited that the arts should provide aesthetic pleasure rather than be fettered to moral and social ends. “Art for art’s sake” was the refined and sensuous cry of the believer, and the fashion was personified by young Oscar Wilde, tripping through the mucky streets of London, holding a lily in his pale, long-fingered hand. I, too, believe in beauty, but that doesn’t stop me from loving its parody. And I loved this excellent production, which, though semi-staged, still conveyed not only the silliness of the era but also its charm and innocence. What makes Gilbert and Sullivan endure is not their insight into the bumbling vanities of humanity but the kindness with which they satirize society’s potential cruelties. Their mockery is finally acceptance and, in that way, humble and approachable.
In Patience, there are two poets, poseur and narcissist (hard to separate the two), both dressed in velvet knee britches and pursued by a bevy of women in pre-Raphaelite trappings: long, flowing gowns and wreaths of flowers crowning their long. tumbling locks. The poets, however, love the milkmaid Patience, and she in turn is perplexed by everyone’s woeful assertions of love, declaring in her broad country accent, “I have never loved anyone but my great-aunt.”
Added to the mix is a chorus of heavy dragoons, who are, according to W. S. Gilbert, a distillation of all that is remarkable and, mostly, English. These bullyboys are heartbroken, having lost their ladies to sighing poetical lads. There is one wildly wonderful scene in which the abandoned dragoons assume the fashions and mannerisms of the Aesthetics in order to lure back their lost loves.
Sir George Mackerras conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the music was a wonder. Perfectly balanced and rhythmically precise, it was everything that the notes on the page could suggest. It was quintessential.
And the singers were perfect, from the excellent chorus members of the English National Opera to the soloists. Comically brilliant and vocally virtuous, Felicity Palmer sang the enviable role of Lady Jane, the aging devotee of the Aesthetics, and sweet-toned Rebecca Bottone portrayed Patience. Simon Butteriss was exquisitely pattery as the lank Reginald Bunthorne: “I am not as bilious as I look.” And baritone Toby Stafford-Allen made a handsome, rich-voiced Archibald Grosvenor: “Gifted as I am with a beauty which probably has not its rival on earth.”
Nothing like it.