It is surprising that a composer as well known and beloved as Johann Strauss II, called “the Waltz King,” could have written an operetta many people have not heard of.
Joseph Sorge, music director of Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC), is an exception.
To say productions of “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” have been few and far between is a gross understatement. After its premiere in Vienna in 1880, the operetta had a brief Broadway run 1882-1893. It returned and was presented by the Ohio Light Opera in 2006. Sorge caught the latter production and became an admirer.
There has been only one recording, in the original German.
Not only is the composer of “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” famous; so is one of the characters, though his role is historical: that is Miguel de Cervantes, author of the classic novel “Don Quixote.”
The operetta is set in the 1590s. Cervantes, a bit of a rabble-rouser in art as in life, is at odds with the Prime Minister of Portugal, Count Villalobos. He is trying to manipulate the country’s young king, so he can ultimately gain power. Meanwhile, the king and queen have troubles of their own, including a rift over a pie.
Director Kathleen Alvania, however, is keeping the details of that pie thing a secret.
In the end, Cervantes succeeds; the king and queen reconcile and the king gets to rule Portugal, said Alvania, who is making her debut as an opera director.
“But my background is in opera,” she said. “I’ve been a singer for a long time, and I really love singing and directing, and melding the two.”
VLOC translated the libretto.
“We used a historical reconstruction and I did some editing,” said Alvania, who described the many “holes in the plot” as the toughest part of directing it. “So, we try to answer questions from the cast and come up with reasons (for the way the characters act the way they do).”
Then again, most plays do not tell the audience everything.
“It is always a little bit mysterious,” Alvania said.
The operetta has all the tropes of its genre: cryptic messages, a dropped handkerchief, young lovers, political intrigue and class differences, such as the nobility vs. Cervantes, singer Gary Sullivan said.
There is also a triangle, or maybe a quadrangle, involving Cervantes, the queen, the king and Cervantes’ sweetheart, Irene, lady-in-waiting to the queen.
Sullivan occupies the role of the conspiratorial prime minister, who tries to distract the underage king through wine, women and song, hoping the young man will not notice.
“I have often been positioned as a rogue, schemer or prankster,” Sullivan said laughing.
“The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” can be challenging, because, the actor said, he is not as much of a trained classical musician as some other cast members.
That pales, though, besides discovering this “hidden gem” of an operetta and its beautiful, if complex, music. Besides, as Sullivan tells it, the first singer become famous for his recitation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs did not have a classically trained voice.
The music in “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” is what is expected from Strauss, Sullivan said.
“There are some waltzes, marches. It’s really fun music you get in your bones,” Sullivan said.
The operetta is at times nonsensical, but also has a message: “That we should enjoy life, and not try to control it or take it so seriously,” he explained.
“The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” is presented in a semi-concert version with full orchestra, at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Performances are Sept. 6-7, 8 p.m., and Sept. 8, 2 p.m. www.vloc.org.