Big Apple spin gives opera bite

1 September 2023

Freeze Frame Opera has done it again, delivering a wildly inventive take on a classic that deserves to be better known. Will Yeoman heads to Broadway. 

The Princess & the Showgirl, Freeze Frame Opera 
Fremantle Town Hall, 31 August 2023 

Italian composer Francesco Cilea’s long life was not matched by his operatic output: Adriana Lecouvreur, first performed in 1902, is the fourth of only five completed operas. 

The libretto, by Arturo Colautti, tells the tale of two strong, passionate women – one an actress, one a princess – competing for a soldier’s affections. It is loosely based on an apocryphal story from the life of the eponymous 18th century actress.  

Cilea’s music is glorious, the score ringing with tuneful arias, duets and ensembles. That Adriana Lecouvreur isn’t as popular as it should be is more to do with its convoluted, confusing plot. 

Thank goodness, then, that Freeze Frame Opera, director Penny Shaw and musical director Tommaso Pollio have taken it in hand to deliver an easy-to-follow and supremely entertaining production, renamed The Princess & The Showgirl, and featuring a mainly local cast. 

In her director’s notes, Shaw writes that the “main focus in this production has been clarity” and that she and Pollio “worked together to cut some of the more marginal plot points whilst still maintaining the heart of the music”. 

It also helps that the action’s been moved to New York City, 1952. Indeed, Rhiannon Walker’s designs, stylishly lit by Jerry Reinhardt, beautifully articulate Shaw’s ideas about a “Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy era when show business and politics were famously interwoven”. 

Brett Peart as the Prince and Kohsei Gilkes as Mr Abate in ‘The Princess and the Showgirl’. Photo supplied

The cast is a strong one, featuring Hattie Marshall as the Showgirl (Adriana), Nicole Youl as the Princess (here Mrs Prince, nicknamed the Princess), Rosario La Spina as the women’s love interest and soldier-cum-politician Maurizio, and Robert Hofmann as Adriana’s friend, admirer and stage manager, Mr Michonnet. 

Also excellent are Brett Peart as the Prince (Mr Prince in this production) and Kohsei Gilkes as officious functionary and would-be lover to the Princess, Mr Abate. 

All are accompanied with gusto by Quattro Formaggi (ha ha): Cathie Travers (accordion), Geoffrey Bourgault (clarinet), Sophie Curtis (cello) and Pollio (piano). 

The opera moves swiftly though its four acts, from backstage Broadway through Mr Prince’s “uptown apartment” to backstage Broadway again. There are many marvellous moments along the way, including La Spina’s impassioned spinning out of Maurizio’s Act I declaration of love to Adriana, La dolcissima effigie, Youl’s passionate Acerba voluttà, dolce tortura (“Bitter pleasure, sweet torture”) in Act II and a graceful dance interlude from Zoe Lancaster in Act III. 

But perhaps the highlight, nothing short of magic, is how Shaw and Marshall take Act IV’s utterly improbable “deathbed” scene and turn it into a more nuanced, truly verismo portrayal of Adriana as an anguished, once-great artist granted a final glimpse of happiness before her demise. 

The Princess & The Showgirl is at Fremantle Town Hall until 3 September 2023. 

Pictured top: Hattie Marshall gives a nuanced portrayal of Adriana in ‘The Princess & The Showgirl’. Photo supplied

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Author —
Will Yeoman

Will Yeoman was literary editor at The West Australian before moving into arts and travel, and is now CEO of Writing WA, as well as artistic director of York Festival. Previously he was artistic director of New Norcia Writers Festival and Perth Festival Writers Week. He is a regular music critic for Limelight and Gramophone magazines and a keen classical guitarist who enjoys collaborating on spoken word and music performances. He favours the flying fox.

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