An operetta by Johann Strauss II
Life is mostly froth and bubble, one person’s fish is another person’s poison, whatever turns you on, a little of what you fancy does you good, each to their own taste, or even there’s no accounting for taste.
Choose your own cliché, for they’re all applicable to this frothy little production of Johann Strauss II (not to be confused with his less famous father, also Johann, and no relation to Richard of Salome fame, which opera is coming to Brisbane later in the month as part of the Brisbane Festival).
Froth and bubble is what this production is all about, and the frivolity extends even to the frocks, for designer Leon Krasenstein has done a time leap so that the setting is Vienna in 1910, the age of Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s paintings are echoed not just in the rather puzzling set but also in the costumes, which are something less than subtle. All that vertical ruching suggests the ease with which a Viennese blind can be pulled up, and there is an extremely revealing but not titillating underwear scene (surely a little judicious padding is essential if Alfred, the would-be seducer of Rosalinde, is to strip down to his long-johns, and if I were Jacqueline Mabardi I’d insist on a less revealing negligee and a more flattering corset).
Gender-bending, cross-dressing and rampant campery are also part of the design but, as I’ve never read the libretto, I’m not sure how much of it is in the text and how much director John Milson has added. But he has great fun with it, and I was reminded of Noel Coward’s song “I went to a marvellous party”, which is all about who does what and with which and to whom, and where the guests “couldn’t have liked it more”.
Because it’s operetta rather than serious opera, you’re allowed to laugh at the ludicrous plot, and when you mix a practical joke that went wrong, a frustrated wife, a Latin wannabe lover who sings with a Melbourne/Italian accent (another reviewer has already made the Con the Fruiterer reference, which is why I’ve had to improvise), an ambitious maid, a transgender count, a drunken jailor and a lawyer who out-clichés the whole profession, it’s no wonder that the production uses English surtitles, even though it’s sung in English. The translation is by Milson himself and Michael Schouten, and is so good that it’s worth reading the surtitles even if you can follow the sung words.
This production is visually stunning and the tunes, of course, old favorites. Although there are almost as many polkas as there are waltzes, it is the latter which bring the gasps of recognition, and when Rachael Cunningham as Adele comes out with “My dear marquis”, the ball really takes off. This is Cunningham’s debut both in the role and with Opera Queensland and, if this performance is any indication, she has a great career in front of her.
The other main roles are sung with skill and gusto, although Jacqueline Mabardi as the adulterous wife Rosalinde did grate a little on the top notes. Jason Barry-Smith as her smooth white-collar husband echoes the good humour of all such rogues in his smooth flawless tones; Michael Martin as the Latin lover sends up his part superbly; but mezzo Sarah Sweeting has to try rather too hard to capture the butchness of her role as Prince Orlofsky, sometimes straining her delicate voice.
The other singers are equally good without being outstanding, but with a farcical plot like this it’s better that they perform as an ensemble rather than as individual stars. After all, there are cameo roles here for almost everyone, including the chorus, with lots of cabaret numbers thrown in, and although I’ve heard stronger musical performances from Opera Queensland, there’s enough fun here to suit just about everyone except the severest critic.
It’s a touring production, which after its Brisbane season goes to Toowoomba and places north, and I’m sure that those audiences will react just as the first-night crowd at the Conservatorium Theatre on Saturday night total confusion over the plot, polite laughter at the gender-bending and bad jokes, appreciation of the singing, a gentle acceptance of a below-par Queensland Orchestra but, above all, delight in Strauss’s gloriously ebullient score, which bubbles and fizzes and, like genuine French champagne, makes you forget all the less pleasing aspects of plot and production.
I do have a general question, though, which has puzzled me for years. Why is it that intelligent music-lovers, who wouldn’t accept any weak jokes in straight theatre, will laugh uproariously at the most feeble attempts at humour on the part of musicians and librettists? The weakest joke from someone like Richard Tognetti at an ACO concert will evoke guffaws of laughter from an audience who wouldn’t crack a smile if the same joke were made in a play or by a comedian. And in this production, what’s really so funny about a slim-line Gertrude Stein look-alike in tails, or a lovely young woman in drag kissing an elderly man dressed as an aging geisha? These formulaic characters are simply part of the social ambiguity of the plot, not jokes in themselves. Why do music lovers leave their verbal sophistication at home when they come to concerts?
Directed by John Milson, with the Queensland Orchestra conducted by Kellie Dickerson
Playing Tuesday 11, Thursday 13, Saturday 15, Tuesday 18, Tuesday 25, Thursday 27 and Saturday 29 July at 7.30pm: Thursday 20 July at 6.30pm, Saturday 22 July at 1.30pm
Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval