Opera and musical theatre partner in this new Morocco-set operetta
If desperate times call for delightful diversions, Opera Australia’s new confection of European musical theatre is a very welcome respite from the apocalyptic omens of contemporary geopolitics. Music director Robert Andrew Greene has artfully strung together a jukebox of operetta’s greatest hits, superbly sung, in English, by a strong cast of six soloists, along with a single violinist, Yuhki Mayne.
The sound achieved by just eight fine musicians is surprisingly full and satisfying in the relatively small Playhouse of our acoustically-challenged Sydney Opera House. The faux Moroccan set by Owen Phillips and the bright, slightly cartoonish costumes by Tim Chappel have an appropriately pantomime feel; director Dean Bryant isn’t sheepish about presenting stock characters with the sole aim of consistently sustained frivolous fun, which is achieved beautifully.
Greene took his suitably silly plot from the Parisian composer Charles Lecocq, little-known to English-speakers who tend to favour his contemporary British competitors Gilbert and Sullivan. After France’s humiliating defeat by Prussia in 1871, Paris couldn’t get enough of Lecocq’s comic operas, including Giroflé-Girofla, a musical sitcom named for the twin sisters at its centre, and set in eternally naughty Spain.
The old swapping-twin-sisters-on-the-night-of-their-double-wedding plot is clearly and elegantly presented by Greene, complete with jokes so corny that you could have several pre-theatre drinks without risk of missing anything of importance – though you might risk singing along with Johann Strauss’s Champagne song, or dancing the can-can down the aisles on the exit number.
If you have any interest in gender politics you’re probably best leaving that in the cloakroom or the bar, because the twins are treated throughout as interchangeable commodities to be traded according to the desires of men. That’s hardly a surprise given the original period and its predominantly male audience, out to have their idea of a good time. But some in the audience may feel some extra sympathy for the fine soprano serving in both title roles, Julie Lea Goodwin, who is very attractive in voice, aspect and demeanour. The two men who want to be married to her characters before a business-like deadline are also well played and sung, by Andrew Jones and Nicholas Jones. There are many doubled characters, many amusing, none morally admirable.
But political and moral judgements of any kind should probably be avoided with this genre. In the final months of World War II, Adolf Hitler lost his taste for the tragic extreme of the opera spectrum such as Wagner’s 1876 Twilight of the Gods, and sought distraction at the comic end, in the light music of the comic Austro-Hungarian composers Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. We can enjoy listening to them today untroubled by any association with Nazism, such as the horrible anti-semite Wagner will always hold. Their numbers in Two Weddings, One Bride, and pretty much all the music, are a delight that we should not spoil for ourselves with scrutiny of the dramatic and historical context. That can be left for the morning after, with the hangover.