The Count of Luxembourg

October 10, 2014 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆   Hopelessly romantic

Church Hill Theatre Weds 8 – Sat 11 Oct, 2014

A smidgeon of modernity, and Edinburgh modernity at that, is added to Elspeth Williamson’s clever production of Franz Lehar’s The Count of Luxembourg for Opera Camerata.

Angele and Rene. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

It must be love – Angele and Rene. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

Playing at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday, Elspeth Williamson sprinkles a few tasty local references and modern touches over Eric Maschwitz’ 1980s adaptation of the 1909 original, bringing it bang up to date.

Of course romance is never out of date: while the convoluted plot waltzes round all over the place – and this being Lehar waltzing is very much on the agenda –  it boils down to a simple tale of love in the artists quarter of Paris in 1911.

She is Angèle, an ice-maiden opera singer, who never falls in love with the men who lavish expensive gifts on her. She is sung here by Fiona Main, who is the jewel in this productions crown. Main has the voice to play a character who is a professional opera singer – and the haughty demeanour to depict the kind of star who has the aristocracy of Europe throwing themselves at her feet.

He is Rene, the penniless Count of Luxembourg, a hopeless rogue who never falls for his own conquests, either. Mike Towers plays the long game in the role. His early scenes are a shade muted as his character is buffeted around by circumstance, but he grows with the operetta and provides some deliciously well-phrased lines, particularly in the pair’s love duets.

Basil needs this commoner to gain a title

Their meeting is orchestrated by a stuck-up prig of an ancient Russian aristocrat, the Grand Duke Basil. He is in love with Angèle who, knowing a hidiously wealthy mealticket when she sees it, has agreed to marry him and move to Moscow.

The weddinb scene: Pavlovitch, Angele, Rene and Mentchikoff. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

The wedding scene: Pavlovitch, Angèle, Rene and Mentchikoff. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

But first, to keep up with Russian society, Basil needs this commoner to gain a title. And for half a million Francs, Rene agrees to marry Angele without seeing her. Giving his word as a gentleman not to consummate the marriage, they will then divorce after three months, leaving her a Countess, and suitable bride material for Basil.

All of which is set up in a first act which never quite achieves its full potential, despite some splendid individual performances.

A deliciously lilting overture from the very well rehearsed orchestra under the baton of Alison Rushworth, bodes will for the waltz-infused production.

Sadly, the Camerata chorus’s scene-setting opening number is almost completely incomprehensible. It is all very colourful and sounds most jolly, but exactly what they are singing about is quite obscured by lack of clarity. To be fair, that doesn’t matter too much. It is obvious that everyone is having a good time, they are artists and they are broke.

Only the failed artist Brissard, a former pastry cook, is having a really hard time. Desparate to build up his bohemain credentials, he is determined to paint his beloved Juliette as a naked Venus. She refuses to pose until they are married – a state which is far too bourgeois for him.

His spurned-lover mope is second to none

Susanne Horsburgh is excellent as Juliette – clearly the dominant partner here, she also has a big and clear voice. Neil French as Brissard is not quite as powerfully endowed on the vocal front, but his ability to go off into a spurned-lover mope is second to none.

Brissard on the receiving end of Juliette's most withering remarks. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

Brissard on the receiving end of Juliette’s most withering remarks. Photo: Simon Boothroyd

George Ross gives a certain level of Savoy opera pomposity to Basil, barking out the orders to his secret service agents – the decidedly cuddly Pavlovitch (Stuart Clelland) and outrageously austere Mentchikoff (Roger Robertson). He gets some best comic lines too, particularly in the tongue twisters of Razzle, Dazzle, Basil.

The actual marriage ceremony – from whence all future misunderstandings in the operetta will stem – is excellently staged. Separated by a screen, neither party can see the other, while Angèle is married under  a pseudonym.

But when Rene punches a hole through the screen so he can put the necessary ring on her finger, the beginnings of their romance are sealed. It is a case of interest being piqued – and both Main and Towers create a wonderful sense of the building romance about their duets.

Throughout, director Elspeth Williamson adds little touches to the production. A pair of shades here, the trio of men whipping out fake microphones as if they were backing singers in a pop video there, everywhere an updated line or local reference.

Any more, and they could become intrusive or gimmicky. Although there are times – in the big waltz scene for example – when you would gladly trade the clever touches for a bit of hard work with a choreographer.

All such considerations are lost in the second half, which crunches Acts two and three together with only a brief scene change between them.

It all falls out splendidly. In particular, that burgeoning romance between Rene and Angèle comes to full-blooded fruition as they waltz around the stage, neither knowing the other’s true identity and certainly not that they are actually married to each other.

As that love affair grows and changes, with Juliette and Brissard’s own affair developing in counterpoint and Basil getting his totally worthy comeuppance, this becomes something quite special indeed.

Yes, it has its faults, but there is so much to treasure here, from the great scenery to the beautifully nuanced reactions of the chorus and smaller characters, and best of all, some rapturous duets, that it fully deserves four stars.

Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes (with one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Tuesday 8 – Saturday 11 October 2014
Daily 7.30pm
Tickets from the Usher Hall box office:  www.usherhall.co.uk

ENDS

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