With the bubble and fizz of a freshly poured flute of champagne, Opera Australia’s new operetta Two Weddings, One Bride is enhanced by the shining talents of its sextet cast.
The pasticcio operetta was crafted by Robert Andrew Greene in 2017 to give Opera Australia a work to perform in the Sydney Opera House Playhouse while the Joan Sutherland Theatre was out of action for renovation. The work proves a perfect fit for Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, with the lovely singing voices and vivid design filling the space with ease.
As an art form, operetta has long since fallen into neglect; the vintage melodies, however, remain a rosily nostalgic pleasure to hear. The difficulty with reviving the classics is their eye roll-inducing plots and, increasingly, the disconnect between the entrenched sexism of the characters and our current woke era. Opera Australia overcomes the problem with this canny commission, in which Greene shoehorns sparkling operetta hits into an obscure French farce by Charles Lecocq. In a nod to tradition, the story is broken up into three acts, which fairly fly by in an uninterrupted 90 minute stretch.
In exotic Morocco, French Governor Phillipe battles plundering pirates and a sour spouse as he attempts to marry off his beautiful twin daughters, Giroflé and Girofla. Two charming peas in a pod, the girls are distinguishable only by the signature couture colours of pink and blue. With Girofla snaffled by cavalier buccaneers, Giroflé must immediately follow her marriage to dashing playboy Marasquin with a faux wedding to aggressive General Modigliani lest he take back the generous dowry.
The brisk humour bears the hallmark of director Dean Bryant, who encourages the creation of physical humour in the rehearsal room. The comedy is delivered with a knowing wink, facilitated by the intimate setting. Baking a featherlight soufflé, the performers take the work seriously enough for it not to collapse upon itself, and their talent is an attraction in its own right.
Bryant is supported by ready partner in crime, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, who begins the merry proceedings with a memorable recreation of pirates on a stormy sea.
Featuring treasured melodies by Offenbach, Lehár and Strauss, the accompaniment is delivered by the delectably light touch of maestro Brian Castles-Onion on grand piano, ably partnered by Yuhki Mayne on violin.
Owen Phillips’ set design is a handsomely romanticised construction of 1940s Morocco under French rule, brightly lit by John Rayment. Costume designer Tim Chappel adds to the rich colour palette, having particular fun with the twins’ pairs of costumes.
The six performers do the work of a full company, proving themselves well and truly up to the task. As strong as each soloist is, some of the loveliest music of the evening is heard in various combinations of singers, blended and balanced to perfection.
Soprano Zoe Drummond masters the silvery soprano style in which the notes pour forth from an ever-smiling mouth. While Drummond’s dialogue is not at the same standard as her singing, her gentle comic style rounds out her performance. Rising tenor Nicholas Jones sings with brightly polished tone, readily balancing comic intensity and romantic tenderness. Jones’ plummy tone of speech is perfect for the wealthy young man of the world.
Baritone Andrew Jones has the perfect comic sparkle for this performance style, scoring laughs for his cheeky work as the female figurehead of a pantomimed ship in the opening number. Jones’ warm vocal tone is enhanced by his nimble diction. The running joke of General Modigliani propensity for belting the first line of classic operatic arias is in strong hands with Jones.
Two Weddings, One Bride brings the welcome chance to see veteran performers Geraldine Turner and John Bolton Wood in neatly customised roles. Bringing to mind Domina and Senex from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Aurore and Phillipe bicker and undercut for all they are worth. Turner is completely comfortable alongside her operatic colleagues, her singing voice as strong and expressive as ever. Bolton Wood captures the comedy of the long suffering husband, delivering witty asides to the audience with resilient verve.
Tenor Michael Petruccelli returns to Australia from Frankfurt to play the suite of roles he created in Two Weddings, One Bride. As well as singing with bright ringing style, Petruccelli shows chameleonic comic style, contrasting a fey waiter with a serious celebrant, and a drunken French cousin with a rigid Australian Colonel.
Those with a rose-tinted nostalgia for the golden age of operetta will appreciate the chance to hear this hit parade of tunes sung so beautifully in Two Weddings, One Bride.
Two Weddings, One Bride plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 November 2019.
Photos: Jeff Busby