Lovers of comic opera have a splendid opportunity to preview the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s offerings during the offseason through its manifold compact disc releases.
There is also an upcoming operetta, Johann Strauss II’s “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief,” appearing Sept. 6-8 in a special “concert version.”
The first CD set we will examine is “The Grand Duke,” or “The Statutory Duel,” a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. It is a live recording at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, where the Victoria Lyric Opera Company has been performing G&S fare for many years. Not one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known works, “The Grand Duke” nonetheless exemplifies lyricist Gilbert’s wit and composer Sullivan’s superb scoring.
Everything is topsy-turvy in this, the last of G&S’s 14 operettas. There is the character of an Englishwoman who speaks with a German accent and German characters speaking English with posh English accents; that is followed by a medley of references direct and indirect to everything from the medieval knight Tannhäuser to secret societies and Freemasonry.
The music is fun, with arias wonderfully sung. This operetta features pieces such as “Happy couples, lightly treading” and “Now bridegroom and bride let us toast,” each of which is performed by an ensemble in a sparkling manner with a solid sound mix.
“The Charlatan,” the next second CD set under review, shows just how unusual the Victorian Lyric Opera Company is in terms of repertoire. While it may be best known for keeping the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition alive in the Washington, D.C. metro area, in fact, it also produces other noteworthy and little-heard works as well.
Such is the case of this operetta by Washington, D.C. native John Philip Sousa. Yes, the American March King, famous for patriotic pieces such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The Washington Post March,” was also a composer and lyricist of comic opera!
Sousa takes center stage as a character at the beginning of this production of “The Charlatan,” subtitled “The Mystical Miss,” and it should be noted here that the Victorian Lyric Opera CD sets are not merely musical highlights but recordings of the entire productions, dialogue at all.
Sousa on stage tells us in his own words that “while you may know me as the March King, I actually spent a fair amount of my time in the musical theater.” Indeed, Sousa surprises with a Viennese-style waltz in the form of “The Lilacs of Your Love May Die,” sung beautifully by soprano Denise Young and chorus. For Sousa fans, the more typical, muscular Sousa march style is on display in the strains of the overture.
We finally come to the third CD set, Strauss’ “The Gypsy Baron,” a melodic work not often performed in English and in some ways the most polished Victorian Lyric Opera recording which we have heard. The plot of this piece is charming and very Viennese, with low-ranking characters in actuality secretly being of high social rank. An especially fine moment is the “Zigeunerlied” or “Gypsy Song,” performed hauntingly by mezzo-soprano Cara Gonzalez.
Conductor Joseph Sorge tells us “My role as artistic director of the company, since 2007, has been to research shows other than G&S, and determine whether they would be appropriate to present fully-staged, or in concert format.” He notes that it can be challenging to find good translations of some European operettas.
What makes “The Gypsy Baron” so much fun is that here the Victorian Lyric Opera Company does not settle for a formal or traditional version of the work, but instead uses a modern translation to bring the Vienna operetta tradition more into a modern American context, including a reference to “Fifty Shades of Grey” Another case in point is this dialogue:
Count: “I am with the Austrian imperial government. “I am Deputy Chairman of the Imperial Privy Commission for Morals.”
Response: “The imperial privy? Haha! Those Austrians! They’ve got a bureaucrat for everything!”
Another determining factor for maestro Sorge’s recommendation as to which operetta to the stage is based on the music itself, as in the upcoming Strauss’ offering (Sept. 6-8) of “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” in concert format.
This entertaining tale of political intrigue involving the poet Cervantes is not well known in the States. Yet it hardly matters, for Music Director Sorge trusts the audience will be hooked and swaying to the strains of Strauss’ famous Viennese waltz “Roses from the South,” which became famous through this operetta from which it sprang did not.
A word should be said about the concert format of “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” production.
Sorge explains: “The semi-staged concert format involves the chorus being seated on-stage behind the orchestra, with principals down-stage, behind music stands and microphones. Everyone is ‘on book,’ and the principals, who are costumed, enter and exit as if in a fully staged production. This differs from other concert formats where the soloists are all seated on-stage in formal wear.”
Please visit the Victorian Lyric Opera Company website at http://www.vloc.org/ to learn more about its productions, which can be enjoyed on compact disc, in streamlined concert versions and in opulent productions when the season is in full swing!