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Richard Campbell



At the Festival theatre the stage is set for a curiously balanced production as we get a merger of opera and burlesque. On top of this we are also treated to an opera within an opera, which is quite apt in this day and age, as the buzz word Meta is all the rage.

The tale involves a double booking at the manor of the richest man of Vienna with a classical opera company and a burlesque troupe coming to clash. And things get even more heated when their host want them to merge their acts together. This art is quite similar to life, as creator Richard Strauss was going head to head with libretto master Hugo von Hofmannsthal. But although they have created a rather mixed beast, it is no chimaera.

Initially, I’ll admit I was a bit worried though. The prologue of the piece is about the warring entertainers’ first meeting and trying to overcome their differences to some degree. This whole part is sung in English, whereas the opera in the latter half is sang in German.  In theory I like the idea of this and I think it’s a brave mood from director Anthony McDonald to set things apart but I don’t think it really works all that well. The inclusion of Eleanor Bron as The Party Planner also adds confusion to the mix as it’s clear she’s not an opera performer. The humour from the roustabouts does come across a bit forced, as does Julia Sporsen’s dramatics in her role of The Composer. But that is by no means a besmirch on her singing talents as she certainly is a very strong soprano. Whereas the rivalling roles of The Prima Donna (Mardi Byers) and burlesque Zerbinetta (Jennifer France) work very well at winding each other up. The music as well during the prologue is also neither the most memorable nor moving.

But pretty much from when the curtain goes up in the second half we encounter a completely different kettle of fish, as we are treated to the opera proper. It concerns Ariadne (Mardi Byers) being morose on the island of Naxos as Theseus her former lover has left her. She’s over looked by the bewitching nymphs and then she’s constantly trying to be cajoled by Zerbinetta and her crew. It’s certainly an odd but interesting mix and works in creating something truly beautiful. Be it Brad Cohen’s considered conduction or Wolfgang Gobbel’s atmospheric lighting design. At times Gobbel really makes it feel as if the moonlight is bouncing off the sea and engulfing the island in its rays. As well as MacDonald using his skills to direct, he also works well in designing the costumes for his cast. I was particularly enamoured by his deft touch in bringing an otherworldly quality to the nymphs particularly for the Naiad (Elizabeth Cragg) and the Dryad (Laura Zigmantaite). They both have these beautiful dresses on with designs that only hint at their spiritual nature. Be it markings that represent waves at the base of the watery Naiad’s dress and branches stemming from the Dryad’s.

Richard Campbell

Byer’s is a very powerful and moving soprano, but it is France as coloratura soprano that truly makes the opera sizzle with her added suçon of sexiness. Be it in her burlesque performance or the way her vocals trill.

McDonald certainly took a bit of a gamble with rolling the dice for this production, and although there may have been a few bumps in the beginning he and his talented crew have certainly got quite the winner on their hands here.

Markus Helbig.

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