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Prime Time: W.S. Gilbert's take on a late Victorian fad

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In December I described a Thanksgiving drive to Cambridge and back. On March 21, I took the same route to Cambridge, staying with son Stuart and his wife, Carol, in Anna's room, Anna having left the nest.

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Good company, good food, and all, but continued on to Minneapolis Friday to visit Natalie, a Bemidji State University student who lived with us in '85-'86. Remember her from my columns of August, September, and October 2009? We cat-sat Marzipan that July while Natalie and others white-water kayaked the Grand Canyon.

I'm welcome when her guest room is available, and had reason to be in the Cities in March: the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company was doing "Patience" at the Conn Auditorium on Nicollet. We settled on the March 25 matinee. I had the opera company send two tickets to Natalie, ensuring they'd be in Minneapolis at the right time.

Many Savoyards regard "Patience" (subtitled "Bunthorne's Bride") as the first mature G&S opera. "Pinafore" and "Penzance" are fun, but there's more character development and insight into the human condition in "Patience." It's still comedy; all G&S operas are, except the one scheduled for next spring, "The Yeomen of the Guard,"

The setting: rural contemporary 1880s England, when the "Aesthetic" movement was the rage (search "Pre-Raphaelites" online for example). Twenty upper-middle-class maidens, betrothed to 20 soldiers and officers of the Heavy Dragoons, have become enamored of "fleshly" poet Reginald Bunthorne, who actually dotes on a naïve, lower-class dairymaid, "Patience." In a three-verse aside to the audience, Bunthorne confesses he is a phony.

The dragoons return and are appalled. After the "lovesick" Lady Angela convinces Patience that true love is totally unselfish, the "idyllic poet" Archibald shows up. Turns out he was Patience's loving playmate as a child, and . . . I'd better stop there. As with most G&S operas, all turns out well at the end, and we've had a good look at Victorian society's foibles.

I've done several columns on G&S since 2001, and have been a confirmed Savoyard for about 70 years. Natalie, on the other hand, had never seen a G&S opera, so I was a bit anxious: Would she like it? She did. So did I; GSVLOC came through, as usual.

Much opera is for superb singers who can act. G&S is for actors who can sing and dance. There were some splendid singers in this production, and not a weak one in the lot, as far as I could tell. All the acting and dancing was great.

By and large, the directing was fine. Directors sometimes mess with the original more than is justified. Some GSVLOC members are well aware of a glaring example in 2005. "The Gondoliers" was originally set in Venice in 1750, complete with a Grand Inquisitor and Gilbert's fun with the 19th century issue of papal infallibility. But that director reset it in Venice, Calif., during Prohibition. As I wrote here in May '09, I was informed that it worked badly.

This director rewrote the details of Col. Calverly's description of the recipe for a Heavy Dragoon, substituting current "personalities" for the list of famous people in Gilbert's original. It wasn't bad. He also gave Archibald a fuller character than Gilbert had. In the original, he comes across as a totally virtuous and likeable but superficial poet who feels it his obligation to maintain his attributes as gifts to humankind. The director changed none of his lines that I spotted, but had him quite knowledgeably flirt with women in the audience, revealing a less than naïve reason for his behavior. It worked well. It helped that Archibald was probably the most handsome male on stage.

He also gave the elderly and ample Lady Jane more personality than she usually displays, and that was done splendidly.

One costuming decision puzzles me. The dragoons are in standard British dress uniforms, the maidens in characteristic "Aesthetic" gowns. I don't know if Gilbert specified the poets' garb in writing, but he did drawings, not only for some operetta roles but for his "Bab Ballads." My Modern Library G&S has two, one of Bunthorne in particular, the other perhaps a generic male aesthete. The costume is simple and plain.

I found the generic aesthete on a blog post at: http://bunthorne.blogspot.com/2011/06/william-s-gilbert.html . In the right-hand column, it is the small drawing just below the "about me" link. In the same blog post, Bunthorne is the sixth Players Cigarette card down in the main article. For the poets, this director chose coats more like the formal wear of Louis XIV courtiers. See the third costume down at: http://blog.catherinedelors.com/18th-century-court-costume-and-marie-ant.... Would any "Aesthete" be seen dead in such ornate garb? Hardly.

It was a fine show anyway.

EVAN HAZARD, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.

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