Sunday, March 26, 2017

Victorian Opera's bright, spright and tightly produced The Princess and the Pea

There were quite a few little princesses and some budding young suitors flocking around Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday for Victorian Opera's latest family opera, Ernst Toch's The Princess and the Pea - a delightful sight indeed.

For this musical fairy tale in one act, lasting just 40 minutes to comfortably engage its time-poor but discerning young audience, Victorian Opera have excelled with this bright, spright and tightly produced work. It was one of just three performances all on the one day and it's another smart and impressive work to come out of the company with much to offer all ages.

Scene from Victorian Opera's The Princess and the Pea
Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale published in 1835, Toch's musically bold, polyphonically piquant and descriptive style, in itself, was a privilege to listen to as conductor Fabian Russell percipiently buffed up the score with a fine patina via a handsomely sized and focused Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra. Many will be familiar with the story of the young woman whose royal credentials are established by testing her physical sensitivity but few would be acquainted with Toch's rewardingly mature orchestrations, first heard at its premiere in 1927.

In director Libby Hill's creative angle on the story, we're on the TV set of an episode of Mythical Mysteries in which a flurrying and highly animated cast of actors breezily tell the tale alongside an equally animated television crew. When the princess fails to turn up for her part, the director's assistant is forced into the role as the cameras run. It just so happens that when her off-camera prince-in-waiting catches sight of her, he falls head over heals in love.

Each scene was surtitled with a brief description in English to Benno Elkan's German-sung libretto. An English translation exists but perhaps Hill's adaptation sits obliquely to this version. Nonetheless, despite the jolly good gesturing, older audience members would benefit from added nuances embedded in the text- a small quibble because the work is full of life.

In this pantomime-like world, the giggles erupted as the mattresses are stacked for "the most beautiful bed ever seen" to an amusing slapstick display before the most appropriate pea is selected from a basketful of exaggerated sizes some children I heard question.

Bless them. I didn't hear them question the juicy palette of vivid clashing colours that decorate a polka-dotted boxed set within a TV studio setting together with the eye-catching and intricately flouncy costumes by designer Candice MacAllister. Peter Darby's punchy lighting design aided in demarcating the studio and set. They fell for it. Oh, and so did I.

Olivia Cranwell, Jerzy Kowlowski, James Egglestone, Kathryn Radcliffe
It was all spun into a vibrant vocal tapestry by the seriously fine talent that took the stage in an ensemble that worked a sweet treat with their audience. Jerzy Kozlowski brought beefy-rich helpings to the pompous King with Kathryn Radcliffe haughtily parading at his side in plush-voiced splendour as the Queen. Soprano Olivia Cranwell cordially sparkled all the way in her transition from stunned crew member to the star of the show as the winsome Princess. James Egglestone milked every moment as the vain and fussy Prince even before his grand resonant tenor made an explosive opening. Michael Petruccelli and Michael Lampard cut a memorable and muscular-voiced pair as the TV Director and TV Cameraman respectively and Dimity Shepherd shone commandingly as the conscientious TV Host.

Coming to its end, we're told there's a moral to the story, "Don't judge a book by its cover". I'm glad for that because I was a little concerned that one might read a little snobbery within the pages. Still, it's a fun and highly polished show but let's just hope our little princesses attending don't turn out as precious.

Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Three performances, 26th March

Production Photos:  Charlie Kinross

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