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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 9th October 2015

State Opera of South Australia augment their main stage operas with smaller scale evenings at the State Opera Studio, their rehearsal space. The two one-act operas on this hilarious comic opera Double Bill were Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne, written when he was only twelve, and sung in German, and Offenbach's La Chanson de Fortunio (Fortunio's Song), sung in French, both with translations provided on screens at either side. The spoken parts of both operas were in English. The translations are not exactly literal, though, with occasional Australian vernacular popping up, and some current references made, all adding greatly to the humour. Both are in the very capable hands of director, David Lampard, who has cast some of State Opera's finest young and emerging artists, as well as designed a very clever single set that transforms during the interval from fields full of sheep to a garden full of roses.

Mozart's music for Bastien und Bastienne, even at this young age, is clearly recognisable as that of Mozart, and some of the phrases and themes are rather familiar, being recycled later in other works. Written in1768, it is only thought to have been performed once at that time, but this is not verified, so using it as a source for other works is understandable. It was not performed again until 1890. Although well-constructed, the songs are not catchy enough to send you out humming the tunes.

The action in Bastien und Bastienne is brought about by Colas, the local soothsayer who, supposedly, also has magical skills. Bastienne, a shepherdess, is sad that her 'dearest friend', Bastien, seems to have lost interest in her and has taken an interest in the town women. Colas advises her to act coolly whenever she sees Bastien, and turn her head to admire other men to inflame his jealousy, which she does.

Bastien has found that the town women cannot hold a candle to his beloved Bastienne and returns singing her praises but, on the advice of Colas, she spurns him, at least, for a while. Colas tells him that Bastienne has fallen for another. He asks Colas to use his magic to turn Bastienne's love back to him. Eventually, though, love cannot be denied and all ends well.

Lampard has given these operas some modern styling and references, this one looking, at first, like a comical melodrama, with Colas, in fact, dressed like a typical villain, complete with curled moustache. The role is played by Jeremy Tatchell, who pulls a great characterisation out of his bag of tricks. He is slightly mysterious, a little cryptic, and all snake oil salesman.

There are also many elements of pantomime, with Desiree Frahn appearing in an outfit that, at first glance resembles the Little Bo Peep of a children's book, until she steps into full view revealing that the dress is only partial, with tight white jeans below the skirt, providing a touch of modernity, high heeled shoes, and a bustier adding a hint of Burlesque.

Her movements, thanks to the choreography by Daniela Taddeo, are highly stylised, and superbly executed by Frahn, adding considerable visual humour. Taddeo, provided the choreography for both productions. Frahn's sense of comedy runs through her facial expressions, body language and, of course, her remarkable voice

Our first look at Bastien finds him checking his Tinder account matches on his mobile phone (thanks to my guest for explaining). Branko Lovrinov is the misguided would-be Don Juan, misguided, that is, by Colas. Lovrinov seems to have as much fun as the audience as he takes Bastien through his confusion and emotional battering as he tries to convince Bastienne of his true love and win her back from her new love, not knowing that there is none.

Jacques Offenbach's music provides us with songs that do stay in your head, which is a fine way to go home after a night of opera. The song referred to in the title, Si vous croyez que je vais dire..." (If you believe that I am going to say whom I dare love, I could not, for an empire, tell you her name.), was once so popular that it could be heard being hummed as people strolled around Paris, and was common in recitals.

In La Chanson de Fortunio we meet the elderly lawyer, Fortunio and his beautiful young wife, Laurette. Fortunio is suspicious that she has a lover when he finds that roses have been taken from his garden and left on the windowsill of her room. He has good reason, as his second clerk, Valentin, is in love with her. As a young man Fortunio had fallen for and seduced the wife of his employer, so history is repeating itself, but Fortunio had composed a song that no woman can resist, in order to make them fall in love with him. Valentin lacks that unfair advantage and dare not speak to Laurette.

The fifteen year old junior clerk, Friquet, is amorously chasing Babet, Fortunios's cook, and the other clerks all wish to have young ladies of their own. Friquet hears the story of Fortunio's song and tells the others but, of course, knowing of its existence and its power is of no use without knowing the song itself. By chance, whilst going through old ledgers, they discover the song written in one of them. Suddenly, everything changes, and tables are turned.

Bowler-hatted and bespectacled, Joshua Rowe is the stern, straight-laced notary, humourless and unbending, jealous and protective of his wife, and constantly harassing his employees. In other words, you just can't help laughing at this ludicrous creature. Rowe doesn't miss a chance to raise a laugh, and his expression when he is caught out as having been a rake in his youth is priceless. His strong, deep voice suits the character well.

Naomi Hede is his beautiful young wife whom, we realise, married for money, and is not impressed with what came with it. The two engage in some very clever dialogue in which she berates him for his many failures and inadequacies as a husband. They are a well-matched pair, generating plenty of laughs over their dysfunctional marriage, and Hede's singing is very easy to listen to, of course.

Laurette is unaware that it is Valentin who is in love with her, and he is too afraid to speak to her, which leaves Beau Sandford with loads of comic material with which to play. He is great fun as the insipid lover, expressing his love and his weakness, until he is emboldened by discovering that special song, and singing it to Laurette. Even then he has trouble explaining his song until Fortunio accuses him of being Laurette's lover, unwittingly helping Valentin, at which the penny drops and Laurette admits her attraction to Valentin.

Hew Wagner is the conniving juvenile, Friquet, with romantic delusions of grandeur, and his sights set sky high. Those sights progressively lower, until he finally settles on Babet and pursues her relentlessly, in spite of her painfully physical rebuffs. Whether he is a dedicated lover, or a stalker, is debatable but he is definitely very funny in the hands of Wagner.

Meran Bow is the cook, Babet, handy with kitchen equipment in more ways than one, as Friquet finds out when he tells her of his feelings for her. Bow is a marvellous comedienne, as well as possessing a wonderfully rich voice. She is an ideal choice for the role. Her song of bread and apples, Ensemble du pain et des pommes, is a very lively affair.

The four clerks, Landry, Guillaume, Saturnin, and Sylvain, played respectively by Sarah-Jane Pattichis, Lisa Cannizzaro, Courtney Bridge, and Desiree Frahn, are co-conspirators with Valentin and Friquet, also acting as a sort of Greek chorus. They inject a good deal of movement, humour, and energy to the piece with each of their appearances, not to mention some wonderful vocals.

Both productions are conducted, with an obvious love for and understanding of these two operas, by Timothy Sexton, CEO and Artistic Director of the State Opera of South Australia, with Penelope Cashman providing the piano accompaniment with great skill and clarity. Marie Docking's lighting design is also very well-considered.

With only two performances these double bills need to be booked early in the year, not at the last minute, as they sell out every time. Perfect for first-time opera audiences and suitable for younger persons, these two works were equally fulfilling for regular opera-goers.

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From This Author - Barry Lenny