If a touch of Venus implies a touch of seductive magic, it is simply not enough in evidence to lift Opera North's rare revival of Kurt Weill's musical One Touch of Venus above a level of mediocrity. Dating from the 1940s, and the composer's watered-down American period, its neglect must surely be down to the uneven score as much as to the difficulty of sustaining the piece in the theatre.
The plot revolves around a priceless statue of the classical goddess, Venus of Anatolia, delivered to the art connoisseur Whitelaw Savory. When his barber, Rodney Hatch, casually tries out the ring intended for his girlfriend on its finger, Venus comes alarmingly to life, with consequences that are both surreal and farcical.
A raid on the barber's premises follows, while a gang of murderous Anatolians hotly pursue their immortal trophy. Add to this a tiresome Freudian-style doctor, a macabre dance of death by a troupe of coffin-bearers and a pageant revolving around dastardly Dr Crippen, and you have the outline of the preposterous picture.
Not surprisingly perhaps, Weill didn't produce anything like his best work when faced with this crazy tale. And at times it seems as though the librettist SJ Perelman and lyricist Ogden Nash hadn't collaborated; how else could Venus be so astonished by the notion of a telephone, yet sing of finding the key to her lover's "ignition"? Around a confusion of unlikely romance, Savory's school for would-be artists at least gives designer Antony McDonald opportunity for painterly references in his picture-book sets. The mid-city bus terminal, its customers taking refuge in the company of a bartender, is based on Hopper's Nighthawks, while the jail in which the barber and Venus end up draws on Hergé's comic-strip squares.
Tim Albery has come up with a production that packs in a lot of effort and effects with more efficiency than subtlety, with the audience frequently blinded by dazzling lights to allow some transformation to take place. In the often frantic stage business, which verges on musical hall routine, the whole company comes very much alive. William Tuckett's imaginative choreography is worth the price of the ticket alone. His robotic, faceless people of New York swallow up what little colour and freedom surface in their daily routine, "Forty Minutes for Lunch", while the dream sequence around the Ozone Heights - where the spray-starched women resemble the Stepford wives - is as sinisterly effective.
James Holmes conducts the alert band of Opera North with terrific energy and an obvious affection for the uneven score. Bringing a degree of authenticity, the American Karen Coker sings Venus, the imaginary girl over whom the art collector has fantasised and yet who falls for the hapless barber. Who would play a goddess? She makes a brave stab, bringing vivacity to her role, but lacking that essential physical sensuality and vocal sultriness.
The score is not without a few catchy numbers, in which Coker lends a particular expressiveness to "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "Foolish Heart", and a yearning to her duet "Speak Low" with the barber (amiably portrayed by Loren Geeting). Ron Li-Paz lends moneyed authority to the role of Savory, velvety-toned in his poignant "West Wind", while his perky secretary (a game Christianne Tisdale) can only dream of such riches as he has. And the audience can only dream of what Weill might have done with One Touch of Venus if only he'd had one touch of inspiration.
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