Composers: Arthur Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach
Librettists: F.C. Burnand, Jules Moinaux
Director: Jeff Clarke
Opera Della Luna has flourished since 1994 and has recently survived the pandemic crisis without government support, a remarkable achievement for a small-scale opera company which very much reflects the quirky vision of Artistic Director Jeff Clarke.
With Opera Della Luna you mostly get personal takes on the comic operas of the 19th century, Gilbert and Sullivan the prime suspects, though Clarke’s net spreads a deal further than that. You get respect for the original, but not reverence, a taste for the absurd, exuberant, good-to-look-at (if hardly lavish) productions and an overall commitment to entertain.
Curtain Raisers certainly entertains and is performed with irresistible brio, but prompts a little disappointment, too, not with the production, but with the material. To over-simplify drastically, the evening consists of two operas, one too long, the other too short!
Both are examples of a type popular in the 19th century, short works that were performed as part of a longer evening, either as curtain-raisers or as after-pieces. The link between the two is impeccable: Offenbach’s Les Deux Aveugles (often translated as The Blind Beggars) was a hit in Victorian England and inspired Sullivan to write Cox & Box.
Cox & Box is familiar to those with memories of the old D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which staged it as a curtain-raiser to H.M.S. Pinafore or The Pirates of Penzance. Sergeant Bouncer has a room to let and doubles his income by letting it both to Cox the tailor, a day worker, and Box the printer, a night worker. When Cox has a day off, they meet and discover all sorts of coincidences in their lives – indeed they are brothers!
However, the Opera Della Luna version, running to 65 minutes, is radically different from the D’Oyly Carte one which was severely cut, losing half its length. Seeing the full original version, one is forcibly reminded that lyricist F.C. Burnand was not W.S. Gilbert. The parody of melodrama and coincidence produces some good gags (identifying a brother by the absence of a strawberry birth mark is a classic) and the tales of Penelope Ann the bathing machine proprietor show a nice line in absurdity, but one sighs for Gilbert’s deftness and lightness of touch. Musically things are much happier, of course.
Clarke’s production is set in a room filled with ageing clutter (Elroy Ashmore’s witty design) where an old man wrapped in a rug sits listening to the overture on his ancient gramophone. This is Bouncer and he begins to tell the story in creaky tones until suddenly James John Cox appears as a terribly smart young chap, Bouncer discards the rug and we’re off! Reminding us that these are his memories, Bouncer lurks beneath his rug whenever he is not involved in the action.
Carl Sanderson is an amusingly imposing Bouncer, Tim Walton brings the comic precision of a true Savoyard to Cox and Paul Featherstone has a nice line in melodramatic indignation as Box. The diction of all three is excellent and they work wonders with Clarke’s vigorous and ingenious choreography, notably on the recurrent show-stopper Rataplan.
Les Deux Aveugles is a mere 25 minutes and quite simply doesn’t have enough Offenbach, though it, too, has a gloriously daft trio dance routine: Sanderson as a nun (don’t ask!). On a wind-swept bridge in Paris (lots of hats blowing off, etc. – smartly done) two blind beggars compete for the passers-by’s sous, except they’re not blind at all! Both of the conmen tell tall tales about how they went blind, like Cox & Box there are recognition scenes, fury and reconciliation – and that’s about it! The music, what there is of it, is infectious, costuming is wonderfully eccentric, Walton and Featherstone are accomplished grotesques and Sanderson’s passers-by become increasingly bizarre.
The reduced accompaniment – piano and harmonium – works extremely well in the hands of Jacob Savage and John Cuthbert, with the harmonium particularly prominent in the Offenbach.
Reviewed on September 8th 2021