The 22nd International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival is now under way in Harrogate with its usual mix of professional and amateur performances – including five performances of Patience by the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company with the National Festival Orchestra at the Royal Hall.

First performed in 1881, Patience was the sixth collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and was even more popular than its predecessor, The Pirates of Penzance. In fact, only The Mikado in 1885 would have a longer initial run of performances. Patience’s success was due at least in part to its topical satire of the “aesthetic movement” but this has been a cause of the paucity of performances in recent years. Even when it was revived in 1900 Gilbert was anxious that the satire would no longer be understood. Its strengths, however, lie in the wit of Gilbert’s lyrics and the melodiousness of Sullivan’s music.

Leslie Bailey writes in Gilbert and Sullivan and their World, “In 1880 London’s fashionable salons were full of languid ladies and affected men. The movement towards beauty in daily life … had now swung to extremes of “aesthetic” fashions and medieval posturing …” This is the world of Patience. The two main protagonists are aesthetic poets, Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor. They are adored by the female chorus of “rapturous maidens” but prefer the village milkmaid, Patience. On the other hand, the maidens’ former admirers, the soldiers of the Dragoon Guards, are eager to reclaim their affections. The themes of fashionable fads and pretentiousness in art and are not confined to the aesthetic movement. Potentially a greater obstacle for the modern audience is the wealth of contemporary references in the libretto.

How would the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company present their new production of a work so deeply rooted in the 19th Century? The answer is that they did it totally straight, with traditional costumes and settings and without updating the libretto, trusting the piece to speak for itself. They also cast the piece extremely strongly with soloists who have great experience of both Gilbert and Sullivan and wider operatic repertoire. The production was directed by Donald Maxwell (who also took the small silent role of Bunthorne’s solicitor). The sets were unexciting but the costumes and movement of the chorus and soloists made up for this. As ever in G & S, the chorus is a main player. The female chorus of “rapturous maidens” and the male chorus of soldiers are strongly contrasted, both musically and visually. At many points in the action this resulted in striking stage pictures with the women dressed in pastel colours surrounding one of the poets on one side of the stage and the soldiers in red uniforms on the other.

Patience herself, at the centre of the action, was played by Rebecca Bottone as a very Yorkshire milkmaid. Her agile soprano sparkled in her solo songs and she created a fine rapport with her two suitors. James Cleverton’s baritone (as Grosvenor) was perhaps the most purely beautiful singing of the evening – his fable of the magnet and the churn was a highlight. Richard Gauntlett is one of the leading proponents at present of the comic baritone roles in G & S and if his big patter song (“If you’re anxious for to shine”) was not as engaging as it might have been he came into his own in the ensuing dialogue with Patience and especially in his scenes with Lady Jane and Grosvenor in the second act. Steven Page as the Colonel sang his opening patter song with enthusiasm and great clarity of diction. The unkind lyrics about growing old given to Lady Jane at the beginning of the second act are set to one of Sullivan’s finest melodies. Sylvia Clarke‘s smooth contralto proved ideal for this.

Of the other soloists one could only wish that Nick Sales’ Duke had been given a song of his own as his fine tenor shone in the ensembles. Matthew Kellett as the Major, too, has a voice of which one would like to hear more. The roles of Angela (Angela Simkin), Saphir (Nichola Jolley) and Ella (Elinor Jane Moran) were perhaps less distinct from one another than their male counterparts but they rose out of the chorus nicely.

The National Festival Orchestra conducted by David Steadman accompanied the singers with sensitivity and made the most of Sullivan’s delicate orchestrations, as in the quintet “If Saphir I choose to marry” towards the end of the piece. Above all a sense of fun essential to G&S was maintained throughout this Patience. The peculiarly English phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan is alive and well in Harrogate.