‘First performance: Vienna, October 3, 1880’ declares the programme for Opera della Luna’s new production of Johann Strauss’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief. ‘First British Performance: Wilton’s Music Hall, London, August 29, 2017’. They’re not joking: this really is the first full UK staging of the Waltz King’s single most successful (in his lifetime, anyway) operetta. It’s a major event, and the director Jeff Clarke duly follows up with one of those quasi-academic articles that you get in programme books at big opera houses explaining how La bohème predicted Mussolini, or whatever. Still kept awake at night by the liberal reform agenda of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary? Well, hold tight, because apparently we’re in for a regular Habsburg-era hot take.
Then the overture plays, an old buffer with Franz Joseph whiskers gets ragged a bit, and three ladies in Victorian ball gowns peer disapprovingly at Wilton’s crumbling plasterwork. ‘Wherever are we?’ asks one. ‘Does it matter?’ shrugs another. Pop: the bubble bursts and we land with a cheerful bump in the world of farcical coincidences, Ruritanian uniforms and marzipan romance known as Viennese operetta. Strauss and his collaborators might have written a show about the (fictional) romantic adventures of Cervantes in 16th-century Portugal in order to cloak a political satire, or they might just have thought the cast would look good in ruffs. By Act Three, when the Prime Minister of Portugal squares off against half of a pantomime cow, it’s clear that we probably shouldn’t over-think it.
So Clarke tips the whole thing into the 19th century, gives it a sprinkling of self-referential gags and sets it spinning along its delightfully daft course. Opera della Luna has a knack for casting singers who know exactly how seriously to take a drama whose sexiest number is a love song to a truffle pie — performed here with languorous sweetness by Emily Kyte in the trouser role of the King. William Morgan has a glint in his eye as Cervantes, Elinor Jane Moran is the sparkiest of soubrettes, and Charles Johnston’s blustering Prime Minister has a voice like cigar smoke and eyes set permanently to ‘swivel’. Katharine Taylor-Jones is acetic as his wife; while as her ageing lover Don Sancho, the contrast between Nicholas Ransley’s dapper singing and his wry, rumpled face suggested Terry Scott playing Steed from The Avengers.
And then there’s the music: gorgeous, glowing melodies, many familiar from Strauss’s waltz Roses from the South (effectively a ‘greatest hits’ compilation from the show) and played by a spirited 12-piece orchestra under Toby Purser. Strauss’s genius is sunny by nature. What makes it so piquant is the way his tunes leave an aftertaste of melancholy. Getting that balance right is the difference between escapist fluff and great comedy, and as the lovelorn Queen, Charlotte Knight provided the necessary hint of lemon zest in this Sachertorte, one minute swooning ditzily and pealing out jewel-like sprays of high notes, the next quickly dabbing her eyes in the background with the titular handkerchief.
That was all the poignancy required to stop the whole thing floating off into outright farce, and to set me wondering whether The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief — with its boy played by a girl, its bustling ensemble set-pieces and its rapturous Act Two waltz trio for female voices — was familiar to the creators of Der Rosenkavalier, that waltz-haunted operetta on steroids. But there we go: over-thinking it again. Sometimes a pantomime cow really is just a pantomime cow. Opera della Luna understands that, and proves — not for the first time — that the rarest pleasures can come with the lightest touch.