Before there was Gilbert and Sullivan there was William Schwenck Gilbert, successful scribbler of bizarre, funny, often grisly little rhymed lampoons of humanity in general and Victoriana in particular -- from greedy curates to spoiled boys. From these little epics, published as "The Bab Ballads" (Bab being Gilbert's nom de plume), he later cribbed plots and pieces of plots for the operas he wrote with Sir Arthur Sullivan.
One such was "Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride," the current offering in the BBC series "The Compleat Gilbert and Sullivan" (9 tonight on WETA, Channel 26).
In its original incarnation, "Patience" was "The Rival Curates," a triangle involving a milkmaid and two members of the clergy -- a favorite Bab target. But by the time "Patience" came along, hard on the heels of the wildly popular "Pirates of Penzance," Gilbert was in enough trouble with his irreverent attitudes -- among other things, they kept him from being knighted by Queen Victoria. In any case, the so-called "aesthetic" movement was sweeping England by then, its poetic embodiments being Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, whose excesses in mannerisms and style were altogether irresistible to Gilbert.
So the Bab curates became a pair of long-haired, velvet-garbed, flower-wielding aesthetic poets, and "Patience" became a triumph of Gilbertian wit and whimsy and one of Sullivan's most beautiful scores.
The "Compleat" producers have done nicely by it in what is probably the best production so far in this series. Even at the height of its tours, D'Oyly Carte rarely performed "Patience" here, so for many this TV production may be the first really professional version to be widely seen in decades.
The opera got a bit of a rocky start in this country in the early 1880s, because the artistic and literary "aesthetic" movement did not catch on with the kind of madness that swept England. Not to worry. In a stroke of genius worthy of Gilbert's own impudence, Richard D'Oyly Carte helped underwrite a tour of the United States by Oscar Wilde that spread the "craze" across the Atlantic and boosted the opera's business to boot.
Wilde did not seem to mind at all being compared to Reginald Bunthorne, who sings:
Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must excite your languid spleen,
An attachment a la Plato for a bashful young potato, or a not-too-French French bean!
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medaeval hand . . .
The TV version (based, we are told, on an earlier production by the English National Opera), is almost flawless -- casting, costumes, sets, staging. Sandra Dugdale as Patience is a lyric airhead. Derek Hammond-Stroud is a bit fleshy for Bunthorne, but plays the role so broadly it doesn't matter. And John Fryatt is a satisfyingly wimpish Archibald Grosvenor.
Anne Collins is a properly overbearing Lady Jane, bass viol and all, but the show stoppers (if they ever let these shows be stopped) would be the trio of Dragoons -- the lisping Duke of Dunstable (Terry Jenkins), Major Murgatroyd (Roderick Kennedy) and Colonel Calverley (Donald Adams) -- in their gymnastic contortions to pattern themselves after the poets who stole the affections of their ladies:
You hold yourself like this
You hold yourself like that
By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat
To cultivate the trim
Rigidity of limb
You ought to get a Marionette, and form your style on him.