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31 Aug 2017

The Queen's Lace Handkerchief: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

Billed as the ‘First British Performance’ - though it had had a prior, quasi-private outing at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe in July - Opera della Luna’s production of Johann Strauss Jnr’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (Das Spitzentuch der Königin) at Wilton’s Music Hall began to sound pretty familiar half-way through the overture (which was played with spark and elegance by conductor Toby Purser’s twelve-piece orchestra).

The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief, Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Opera della Luna, the company


The musical memory had been jolted by the waltzing strains of Roses from the South, the arrangement which had kept an otherwise forgotten operetta alive in the minds of Strauss’s contemporaries and subsequent audiences.

Written in 1880, six years after Die Fledermaus, The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief is, at times, melodious, funny and toe-tap inducing but is ultimately hampered by the convoluted flat-footedness of its ‘plot’. At Wilton’s, where last year I enjoyed the company’s fabulous Offenbach double bill , Opera della Luna, guided by their director Jeff Clarke, worked tremendously hard to make something of the long-winded absurdities of Heinrich Bohrmann-Riegen’s and Richard Genée’s libretto, but couldn’t quite pull it off.

Though Don Quixote has - in many a dramatic, balletic and operatic embodiment - frequently pounded the boards, the ‘ingenious nobleman’s’ creator, Cervantes, is a less-frequent theatrical visitor (though Mitch Leigh had a go at bringing Cervantes to life in his 1964 musical Man of La Mancha, in which, awaiting a hearing of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes and his fellow prisoners perform the knight’s escapades as a play within in a play).

Strauss and his librettists place Cervantes centre-stage in an intrigue, the political and amorous complexities of which defy comprehension and elucidation. So, to essay a back-of-an-envelope summary … the young King, a womanising gourmand, is being manipulated by the Prime Minister who encourages the under-age leader’s rakishness and ferments discord between the young monarch and his 17-year-old Queen. The Minister has clashed with Cervantes whose satirical play has provoked Sancho’s wrath, and led to the writer’s arrest. Donna Irene, Cervantes’ betrothed and the Queen’s confidante, enters the conspiracy, but is wrong-footed when the Queen develops an infatuation with the writer and writes a declaration of passion on her lace handkerchief, which she places between the pages of a Cervantes’ book. Medics, matadors and maniacs all wander into the dramatic, but somehow the knots are untied, Cervantes is released, and King and Queen are reconciled.

I didn’t ‘get it’ either … but, operetta is by nature not merely farcical but also satirical, and topicality is the key: so, although the operetta is ostensibly set in 16th-century Portugal, the ‘crisis of government’ it presents certainly strikes a raw nerve.

And, sensibly, judging that 16th-century Portugal and the Viennese waltz are not familiar bed-fellows, Clarke has discerned a contemporary relevance. In a recent interview , he explained: ‘What I believe the show is actually about is the Austrian court of the 1880s, with the young King clearly representing the young Crown Prince Rudolf. Many longed for the Emperor Franz-Josef to relax his ultra-conservative views. Rudolf espoused many enlightened liberal principles but was allowed little freedom to implement them by his unyielding father. His soon-unhappy marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium was regrettable and the root of his many scandalous affairs with young semi-aristocratic women. No-one in 1880 could have foreseen the tragic conclusion of Rudolf’s career when in 1889 he shot his lover Mary Vetsera before killing himself, in a suicide pact at his hunting lodge at Mayerling.’

So, Elroy Ashmore (sets), Wanda D’onofrio (costumes) and Nic Holdridge (lighting) whisk us off to 1880s Vienna, the straightforward design of skew-whiff painting-frame and hanging textiles indicating exterior or interior. The simplicity did result in a tendency for the singers to come to the fore of the stage and sing to the audience, rather than to each other, although as the dramatic complexities and comic interplay intensified, this was less of a hindrance.

Clarke has done his research: this production is based on a New York production of 1882, which opened the newly built Casino Theatre where it ran for 130 performances before touring successfully for over two years. Clarke mined the archives of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and his version is ‘based on one of the four English versions of the show in that collection’. He commissioned a new small-orchestral arrangement from Francis Griffin, ‘based on the band parts in this collection, and on the manuscript orchestral score of the show which is now held in the Library of Congress in Washington DC’.

Clarke has also re-written the English libretto, though he might have been even more brutal in excising some of the lengthy, often dull, dialogue - after all, the plot’s illogical enough already, a few more non-sequiturs wouldn’t hurt.

While all operetta needs good singing-actors, Strauss presents perhaps greater vocal challenges than Offenbach - his waltzes are very difficult to sing - and on the whole Clarke has gathered together a sterling cast, who did their utmost to wring the best from text and score. Mezzo-soprano Emily Kyte’s King - an Orlofsky prototype - had copious confidence, allure and shine, though she was a bit under the note in the first act’s melodic peaks. But, she conveyed the King’s heedless self-absorption in the ‘Trüffel-Couplet’ - an aria in praise of a pastry - and generally strutted with panache.

Charlotte Knight, as Kyte’s Queen, acted with comic nous but didn’t have all the vocal arsenal required; Elinor Jane Moran had a bit more vocal substance as Donna Irene, and Katharine Taylor-Jones was a wise and stable presence as The Marchioness.

A be-whiskered Charles Johnston blustered his way with affecting charm as the pompous Prime Minister, and offered a skilled display in the G&S patter; Nicholas Ransley used his fairly light baritone to good effect as Sanchos. Tenor William Morgan displayed a good balance of warmth and bitterness as Cervantes.

One saving grace of the operetta is the dramatic potential of its ensembles, and Clarke and his singers didn’t miss a trick. The Act 2 opening was beautifully calmed by the three blended female voices; and the men made the most of their moment in the trio in which Cervantes uses his guile to trick the Minister and Sancho. If the Act 1 finale is repetitive and dull - and rather messy in execution here, with anxious glances being thrown in Purser’s direction - then the conclusion to Act 2 is and was a real delight.

There have been some fairly recent productions of The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief: Ohio Light Opera offered it in the summer of 2006, and the following year Staatsoperette Dresden performed a German language production which triggered Clarke’s interest.

I began this review by noting that Opera della Luna’s production was promoted as the first British performance of Strauss’s operetta; but, a little pre-performance research threw up a report in the Observer from 7th February 1937 that ‘the Alan Turner Opera Company add “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” to its list of annual first performances in England of Johann Strauss operettas’, with the ensuing observation that the work ‘represents Strauss more nearly at his worst than his best’, and that even with a new libretto and new lyrics, ‘1001 Nights was more entertaining’.

This hyperbolic denouncement is unfair on the work, and certainly doesn’t hint at the comic flair of Opera della Luna’s undertaking. But, it’s not entirely wide of the mark. So, all the more credit to Clarke and his cast, for if the Viennese frivolity was perplexing rather than pointed, then one’s feet were certainly stirred into toe-tapping motion by the waltz sequences. Opera della Luna squeezed what they could from the barmy machinations and intermittent musical interest.

Claire Seymour

Johann Strauss II: The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief

Opera della Luna: The King (Emily Kyte), The Queen (Charlotte Knight), The Prime Minister (Charles Johnston), Don Sancho (Nicholas Ransley), Don Cervantes (William Morgan), Donna Irene (Elinor Jane Moran), The Marchioness (Katharine Taylor-Jones), The Dancing Master (John Wood), Minister of War (Richard Belshaw), Minister of Justice (Ben Newhouse-Smith), Master of Ceremonies (George Tucker); director - Jeff Clarke, conductor - Toby Purser, set designer - Elroy Ashmore, costume designer - Wando D’Onofrio, lighting designer - Nic Holdridge, choreography - Jenny Arnold, Orchestra of Opera della Luna.

Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Tuesday 29th August 2017.

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