Arthur Sullivan knew better than to mess with a winning formula. ‘Cox and Box, based on J. Maddison Morton’s farce Box and Cox’ reads the title page of his first comic opera, composed to a libretto by F.C. Burnand a good five years before he latched up with W.S. Gilbert. ‘Those boys hit on a brilliant idea,’ Billy Wilder is supposed to have said when he saw the musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black had created from his movie Sunset Boulevard. ‘They didn’t change a thing.’ Gilbert’s comic beats are sharper and faster; and he’d doubtless have shortened it by about 15 minutes. But Burnand’s words gave the 26-year-old Sullivan the hook he needed, and on a late summer night at Wilton’s Music Hall, Opera della Luna took it from there. The woman directly behind me started laughing in the overture, and didn’t stop for the full hour.
It’s been said before, but Opera della Luna is a little miracle: a shoestring touring company with a near-supernatural ability to get inside the head (and heart) of 19th-century comic opera. In recent years, they’ve given the UK première of a Johann Strauss operetta, a rare modern staging of the Edwardian West End smash The Arcadians, and an Offenbach double bill that was so raucously, scabrously funny that even writing about it has just made me choke on my tea. Whatever: Opera della Luna just gets it. One or two critics are in on the secret and we exchange furtive grins across the foyer. I’ve no idea what the rest of the profession is doing, but the time of year probably has something to do with their absence. Fake outrage about the Last Night of the Proms won’t confect itself, after all.
Cox and Box gets a head start from being at Wilton’s, a venue so soused in rackety Victorian atmosphere that it might as well be sporting mutton-chop sideburns.