THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
March 25, 2017
After a few hours’ post-performance reflection, you’re left with the sense that there’s not much to Ernst Toch and Benno Elkan‘s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable. It barely lasts for 40 minutes, the characterisations offer no dark shadings or suggestions of internal depth, Toch has composed very few long stretches of work for his vocal septet, and the musical vocabulary itself is a puzzling amalgam of tongues, when it’s not just satirising operatic conventions.
Director Libby Hill set the story in a TV studio, starting out well enough with all the usual feverish off-camera action and the semi-histrionics of technical crew and acting/singing cast. Candice MacAllister‘s set comprises little more than a raised platform for the central action with a square frame surround to mark the screen’s limits; then, matters eventually spill off this acting area and towards the front-of-stage, although the differentiation between the story and its peripheral framework is broken pretty close to the start when studio gofer Olivia Cramwell is prevailed upon to play the Princess and two technicians (cameraman and director), Michael Lampard and Michael Petruccelli, also take on participatory roles as courtiers.
Conductor Fabian Russell controls an active pit with only a few obvious misfires to be heard from his pretty small instrumental force: string quartet with double bass, two flutes and one each of the other woodwind, no trombone but one each of the other brass, percussion and timpani. The only recording I’ve come across of this work involves a pretty full-sounding orchestra (Berlin Chamber Symphony) but what you lose in depth (in the Playhouse?!), you gain in clarity from the singers.
Here, the production was blessed in a fine cast of extroverts. Veteran Jerzy Kozlowski gave us a befuddled but booming King; as his consort, Kathryn Radcliffe worked particularly well as the tale’s fly-in-the-ointment figure who casts doubts on the Princess’s aristocratic background; as you’d expect in this era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James Egglestone pranced and preened through the Prince’s part, albeit with a fine ringing heldentenor attack; Lampard and Petruccelli backed the rest of the principals with exuberantly forward baritone/tenor duet force in the few stretches where they were required to sing – usually ensembles.
Dimity Shepherd began the piece as a TV Host, explaining the plot and what was happening with all the smiling artificiality of a Playschool adult; then, she entered the action as the courtier with a good idea to test the Princess, and here is where she took centre-stage for a long tract, explaining her scheme with enthusiastic drive and a no-holds-barred dynamic. Cranwell also presented a forward-stepping heroine, vim-filled and energetic in both movement and vocal flexibility.
You could have no complaint about the company’s singing, then. But what they sang was another matter. For reasons that escape me, the opera was given in German; hence the necessary plot guidance from Shepherd-as-Host and some sporadic signpost explanations projected on the front walls. All this would have been fine, except that pretty well every adult there had a child (or children) in tow. Some adults believe in the child’s innate ability to cope with the unfamiliar; I don’t and this occasion bore out my misgivings.
For the young audience members, the only times the show came to life were when the characters were arranging the multiple mattresses for the Princess’s bed – a whack in the face here, a crotch-splitting intrusion there – and when the Princess herself re-arranged the bed so that she could get a decent night’s sleep, turning the mattresses into a pratfall-generating slippery slide, albeit one made of fabric. At these points, the laughs came out spontaneously.
But the little boy behind me typified the prevailing pre-adolescent puzzlement. ‘What’s she saying?’; ‘Why did he do that?’ ; ‘Where are they going?’ – a ceaseless interrogative litany which eventually descended into kicking (his own seat, fortunately) and pleas for sustenance. Of the mother, who betrayed her ignorance every time she opened her mouth (and she adjusted her volume to match her child’s with no attempt to shut the brat up), it boots me not to speak. Not unexpectedly, my perfectly-behaved grand-daughter found this theatre convention-disruptive counterpoint more intriguing than what was in front of her. I understand that an English version of Elkan’s libretto exists; why it wasn’t used remains one of the mysteries.
In terms of production values, this piece was rather bare-boned. The principals had fairy tale-suggestive costuming; the TV crew wore modern dress/studio uniforms. But the set was as plain as for a Beckett monodrama. Consequently, the work depended on its singers and, when you can’t understand them, it’s a big ask of pre-ten-year-olds to stay focused. A lot more slapstick might have helped; the score is perky and jerky enough in its bemusing fusion of Weill, Prokofiev and Stravinsky to support a lot more running around.
The Princess and the Pea was presented three times on the one day only in the Arts Centre and would seem to have been made for touring. I don’t know what the young of Yackandandah or Yarrawonga would make of this entertainment; for quite a few, it would be a long 40 minutes.