Sunday, April 30, 2017

A yesteryear romp in operetta where the champagne's a tad flat - Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride

First I was thrilled - a new work from Opera Australia. Then, uncertain - it's a pastiche of operetta hits stitched onto the foundations of a libretto derived from the work of a now generally unfamiliar 19th century French composer, Charles Lecocq. Then again, from the sharp-looking promotional material, it looked like it could be lots of fun. So how did it go?

Cast of Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride
There's a great company of artists and creatives that make Opera Australia the premium brand it is but I was left scratching my head after Saturday night's opening of Two Weddings, One Bride. Frankly, I was disappointed. It's not the Opera Australia brand I'm used to and, for me, it elicited more questions than laughs.

Of course, when the Joan Sutherland Theatre becomes unavailable for Opera Australia's large-scale fare due to its closure for renovations, it creates a conundrum of sorts. The rest of the 2017 Sydney season is pared back to a couple of concert operas with Moffat Oxenbould's iconic Madama Butterfly getting stage time at the Capitol Theatre as the only fully staged opera. Julie Andrews' My Fair Lady gets a rerun at the Capitol too, so it leaves very little to whet the opera appetite in Australia's largest city. Pinchgut Opera come to the rescue with their now customary two productions.

Was a lighthearted new pastiche the answer to filling the gap? If it wasn't for its lack of punchy humour, self conscious slapstick style and undernourished musical support, perhaps it could be. But Australians take pride in their humour so, for laughs, where is the investment in something that reflects this in opera?  No easy task but why spend money on a 'new' work that has the trademarks of European yesteryear?

Charles Lecocq's Giroflé-Girofla, an opéra bouffe in three acts that premiered in 1874, and the curious work creator Robert Andrew Greene based his Two Weddings, One Bride on, enjoyed popularity in its day, including an appearance in Sydney in 1875 so it seems. A fair enough start.

The gist of librettists Albert Vanloo and Eugene Leterrier's story remains intact but it's updated from its 13th century setting in Spain to one day in the mid 20th century French protectorate in Morocco during WWII. As pawns in their parents' plans to save themselves and their state, identical twin sisters Giroflé and Girofla (played by the same actor and differentiated by their pink and blue costumes) are coerced into marriages of convenience. Giroflé's wedding goes accordingly to plan but Girofla is kidnapped and, so as to appease the other impatient groom, Giroflé is forced to marry a second time. The truth eventually comes out in a day of mayhem in Morocco that's rescued by an ocker Aussie digger who saves things getting further out of hand, one that attempts to guide the work into local laps.

John Bolton-Wood, Julie Lea Goodwin and Geraldine Turner
A rear-facaded single set featuring a rattan lounge setting opens out to include exterior depth by Owen Phillips' dutifully created exotic Moorish style. Tim Chappel's slick costumes brightly delineate characters and John Rayment's warm and romantic lighting adds lushness to the picture. But the overall effect is conservative, one that limits director Dean Bryant to mostly spreading the action linearly on a shallow stage and around a few furnishings - some that tricked the opening night cast.

Opera Australia created the work "to give some of the most delightful songs of operetta an outing", as the program notes state. Offenbach, Lehár, Kálmán and Stolz, with a sprinkling of Lecocq's music itself, make up the score but it's Strauss' signature that provides the most froth, in particular music from his bubbly Die Fledermaus. Greene was at piano, giving jaunty-tuned precision and violinist Yuhki Mayne added expert technique bound in warmth at his side. But most of the tunes would be familiar in their full orchestral beauty so the spare backing made you wonder where the rest of the band were and what kind of outing was intended because it's not such a cheap one at that.

There's ample fun on stage amongst the cast but it doesn't always convert to hoped for laughs. Opening night suffered with a few hiccups in comic timing and lines like "I'm too old to do the can-can....I can't can't" started to wear thin. One the whole, quality voices carry the drama forward but you can bet your bottom dollar that if Opera Australia revived it's own celebrated Die Flerdermaus by director Lindy Hume, you'd be getting the bells and whistles of operetta and the company's full attention to delivering the best.

Andrew Jones, Julie Lea Goodwin, Nicolas Jones
The cast, however, stepped up to the task with enthusiasm. Sparkling soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was a breath of fresh air and took the spotlight charmingly as she alternated between Giroflé and Girofla, making Lehár's "Vilja Leid" from Die lustige Witwe a sweet and expressive rendition as she reluctantly goes ahead with the second wedding. Nicholas Jones' suave good looks and drop-dead gorgeous honey-toned tenor befits the man of class his Marasquin is as Giroflé's chosen. Laying on thick the impassioned romantic tune of "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns, Jones sailed high on the night's best performances.

Not to be confused with the other Jones, the rich and roaring chesty baritone of Andrew Jones' General Modigliani comes with unbridled pistol-pride and macho heft in his demands to take his bride. David Lewis slipped comfortably between multiple roles in fine voice and overcooked accents as Pedro the spirited Spanish chef, Francois the pesky French cousin, the "stone the flaming crows" Aussie colonel and the pious celebrant.

Long associated Opera Australia favourite John Bolton-Wood fit the comic glove as the agitated twins' father, Philippe. Playing his bumptious and disgruntled wife Aurore, musical theatre personality Geraldine Turner, in her company debut, took to the geared-up shenanigans but the voice faltered in puffing up "Orlofsky's Aria" from Die Fledermaus in her opening song and struggled thereon. The ensemble singing, too, will no doubt coalesce as the season progresses.

Near end, it wasn't the most cleverly dropped line when "We hope you liked our show" rang out from the stage. It's hard telling the generous host and hostess the champagne's a tad flat. As the long 50-plus show season of Two Weddings, One Bride lies ahead for Opera Australia in Sydney, the company makes its usual move to Melbourne for the autumn season which gets underway in a few days. Now that you shouldn't miss.

Two Weddings, One Bride
Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 22nd October

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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