In its heyday, operetta was the most popular performing art form in the world, comparable to the blockbuster musicals of today. Frivolous stories set in exotic locations, laced with romance and risqué humour, tickled the fancy. But the frequently ludicrous libretti were essentially a vehicle for the joyous melodies – for it was the music that the audience couldn’t get enough of, with composers happy to borrow freely from other scores to satisfy the public appetite.
Today operetta is languishing because although the music may still sparkle, the plots don’t cut it for modern tastes. Which is why conductor Robert Andrew Greene has come up with Two Weddings, One Bride, which he describes as “an operetta megamix or operetta jukebox”.
Andrew Jones, Julie Lea Goodwin and Nicholas Jones in Two Weddings, One Bride. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Nursing a long-standing affection for the genre, Greene has loosely based the plot of Two Weddings, One Bride on an 1874 operetta called Giroflé-Girofla by Charles Lecocq – a prolific French composer and rival of Jacques Offenbach, one of the great purveyors of 19th-century operetta. Writing in the programme, Greene says that he considers Giroflé-Girofla a rare example of an operetta where the libretto (by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo) is better than the pleasant but unmemorable score.
Greene has used a few of Lecocq’s tunes as linking passages but crafted the rest of the score by borrowing a selection of music from operettas by Johann Strauss, Offenbach, Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kalmán and Robert Stolz. He has written new lyrics and dialogue, while the director Dean Bryant has also written some additional material.
With the Joan Sutherland Theatre closed for the rest of the year for renovations, Opera Australia is presenting Two Weddings, One Bride in the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre.
The light-hearted comic romp, written for a cast of six, is set in French colonial Morocco in 1941 where the Governor (John Bolton Wood) has run up some serious gambling debts and is struggling to retain power. On top of that, pirates are preying on the country’s young women and selling them into slavery.
The Governor and his wife Aurore (Geraldine Turner) are blessed with identical twin daughters Giroflé and Girofla (Julie Lea Goodwin) who can only be told apart by their blue and pink dresses. To solve their financial and political woes, Aurore has organised for Giroflé to marry Marasquin (Nicholas Jones), son of the president of the bank who will then release the Governor from their debts, and for Girofla to become the bride of the Italian General Modigliani (Andrew Jones), who will maintain order in the country.
All seems to be going to plan until Girofla is kidnapped by pirates. With the fascist General threatening dire consequences if the wedding doesn’t happen that day, the only solution seems to be for Giroflé to pretend to be both herself and her twin sister until the Admiral can rescue Girofla from the pirates.
Andrew Jones with Geraldine Turner and John Bolton Wood. Photograph @ Prudence Upton
The plot is well structured and holds water within its own completely silly world, and there’s lots of delicious music performed by Greene on piano, with Yuhki Mayne on violin. Greene has drawn heavily on Strauss’s Die Fledermaus including Orlofsky’s song, the Laughing Song and the Champagne Song among several other excerpts. Other familiar songs include Vija from Lehár’s The Merry Widow and You Are My Heart’s Delight from The Land of Smiles.
There’s also the famous Galop (Can-Can) from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a waltz from Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron, and music from Kalman’s The Countess Maritza, Offenbach’s Périchole and Stolz’s White Horse Inn. It all works together delightfully well to create an organic, vibrant score.
The production is clearly a relatively low-budget affair but Owen Phillips has designed a colourful set with hanging lanterns, a tiled floor and wooden blinds opening onto a balcony, not to mention a couple of doors and a cupboard for all the comical comings-and-goings. Tim Chappel’s costuming adds to the cartoon bright look, while John Rayment’s lighting brings it all to vibrant life.
Bryant directs with a deft, suitably light touch, and together with choreographer Andrew Hallsworth keeps things bouncing along.
Goodwin is in sparkling form as Giroflé and Girofla. A rising star at OA, her bright, crystalline soprano is as effervescent as the music, and her acting is equally impressive. Coloured frocks aside, she does a terrific job of differentiating the twins vocally and gives each a different energy and personality. She really does dazzle, lighting up the stage whenever she appears.
Julie Lea Goodwin with John Bolton Wood and Geraldine Turner in Two Weddings, One Bride. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Looking exceptionally dashing in a white dinner jacket, Nicholas Jones exudes matinee idol charm as Marasquin, matched by a lovely, light tenor. Andrew Jones unleashes a rich baritone and impressive comic chops as the trigger-happy general, flashing a maniacal smile that is as hilariously mad as his lavishly feathered hat.
Tenor David Lewis sports a number of ludicrous wigs and accents in a variety of cameo roles, and sings with winning charm. Turner, who is making her OA debut, is known as a musical theatre performer – which does show. Vocally she is the least comfortable with the material, showing some strain at the top of her register. However, she and baritone Bolton Wood – who is now in his 80s – amuse in stock comic roles as larger-than-life, bossy wife and the blustering, hapless General.
Running 85 minutes without an interval, some of the comic shenanigans could be tightened and sharpened. A few wittier, funnier lyrics would also boost the comedy. There are some groan-worthy puns and double entendres and we smile a lot, but there’s room for a few more laugh-out-loud moments.
But the music is gorgeous and the energy of Goodwin and the two Joneses (who also play pirates) can’t be faulted. All in all, Two Weddings, One Bride is, as Bryant puts it, “a valentine to a ridiculous and glorious artform” and a lot of fun.
Two Weddings, One Bride plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until October 22