English Touring Opera are pairing Tosca with Patience for this tour, switching overnight from Puccini’s lustily violent, viciously tragic political thriller into Gilbert & Sullivan’s deliciously light, crisp satire on – of all things – the Aesthetic Movement, when Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne, William Morris and, later, Oscar Wilde pioneered Art for Art’s Sake beyond the strictures of Victorian society. The distance between opera and operetta could not be better illustrated by this contrasting duo, but the defiantly trivial Patience holds up remarkably well against her powerful rival, with lovely melodies and near-surreal comedy producing moments of great beauty for ear and eye alike.

Lauren Zolezzi (Patience) © Richard Hubert Smith
Lauren Zolezzi (Patience)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Director Liam Steel presides over a vivacious, vigorous production which brims with genuine humour, constantly energised by strong group choreography, a vocally sumptuous chorus, and a cast who can act as well as sing. Florence de Maré’s design calls on all the visual touchstones of Aestheticism, with a peacock feather quill for aspirational poet Reginald Bunthorne, plenty of drooping lilies for his lovelorn adorers to waft in uncertain hope, and a Grecian urn for Bunthorne’s despairing lottery of love when rejected by Patience, the dairymaid of his dreams. The set, a corner cube of dark green giant damask, pierced by regular archways and incorporating a flight of steps, gives versatile opportunities to manage the large cast on stage, its deep colour relieved by classical statues. Costumes for the “lovesick maidens” recall Alma-Tadema heroines, with coronets of oversized blossoms and flowing Grecian drapery, while our poets are positively upholstered in dark chintz jackets, velvet knee-breeches and, of course, billowing white shirts and equally billowing hair. Assembling all these on stage, de Maré reminds us how familiar the visual language of the Aesthetic Movement has become; Gilbert and Sullivan worried Patience could lose her charm when the fad was over, but its enduring impact on visual culture ensures we all know exactly what they are mocking – and why.

Aled Hall (Duke of Dunstable), Bradley Travis (Bunthorne) and Andrew Slater (Colonel Calverley) © Richard Hubert Smith
Aled Hall (Duke of Dunstable), Bradley Travis (Bunthorne) and Andrew Slater (Colonel Calverley)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Timothy Burke, conducting the English Touring Opera Orchestra, gives a light and lyrical account of the score, balancing its mischievous faux-melodrama and moments of military bluster with delightful prettiness. Although plot and lyrics whirl along at significant speed, there are still pockets of sheer, unashamed musicality – Music for Music’s Sake, perhaps? – such as “Prithee, Pretty Maiden (Willow Willow Waly)”, when the only reason that anything so frankly silly should be repeated at any length is simply because it’s set to such a delicate, pleasing tune. Pointing out the synthetic posturing involved in Aestheticism, the plot is itself synthetic to near-insincerity; but its ridiculousness is part of its fun, and Steel doesn’t try to impose realism, rather allowing each condensed caricature to flourish on its own terms. While pace is generally high throughout the night, momentum can occasionally falter from one scene to another; but the usual Achilles’ heel of operetta, the transition from singing to speech, which can be so awkward in less talented hands, is faultlessly fluid and convincing throughout.

We have a practical, winning Patience from Lauren Zolezzi, whose clean and supple soprano dances joyously through her score: this is one extremely classy milkmaid, even if she can heft her churns with gusto. Bradley Travis sighs, pouts and poses with cinematic grace as Reginald Bunthorne; with a burnished baritone and enviably clear diction, Travis’ highly wrought performance is already impressive, and will only improve as the run continues. Ross Ramgobin, with his assured acting and lyrical, agile baritone, excels as that self-confessed exemplar of human perfection, Archibald Grosvenor, the “Trustee of Beauty” who provokes Patience’s central philosophical problem: how can you unselfishly love someone who you think is actually perfect? Answer: stop, wait for them to become a little less perfect, then love on in moral comfort.

Valerie Reid (Lady Jane) © Richard Hubert Smith
Valerie Reid (Lady Jane)
© Richard Hubert Smith
Andrew Slater’s superb bass showed no signs of fatigue from Scarpia the night before as he took on the blusteringly verbose Colonel Calverley; the linguistically punishing "If you want a receipt for that popular mystery” came across with the sort of nonchalant calm other singers might kill to acquire. Slater’s delicious world-weariness and exhausted machismo chimed perfectly with Aled Hall’s sprightly, irrepressibly optimistic Duke of Dunstable, deftly voiced, genuinely comic and achingly well-timed. An appealing Major Murgatroyd from Jan Capiński confirmed the military trio as a force to be reckoned with.

As Lady Jane, the very ripest of Bunthorne’s hopeful maidens, Valerie Reid gives a hilarious, show-stealing rendition of “Sad is that woman’s lot… Silvered is the raven hair”, an aria not unrelated in tone to Berta’s “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” from The Barber of Seville. Gaynor Keeble is a charismatic Lady Angela; Suzanne Fischer, an animated Lady Saphir. The herd mentality of the lovelorn maidens is brilliantly depicted; deprived of Bunthorne, they descend on Grosvenor like ravening Bacchants, clutching lustfully at his clothes and body. In the end, Bunthorne may well be relieved to have survived unscathed – and unattached.