Tuesday 1 October 2013

Die Fledermaus, English National Opera, 30 September 2013


(sung in English)

Gabriel von Eisenstein – Tom Randle
Rosalinde – Julia Sporsén
Frank – Andrew Shore
Prince Orlofsky – Jennifer Holloway
Alfred – Edgaras Montvidas
Dr Falke – Richard Burkhard
Dr Blind – Simon Butteriss
Adele – Rhian Lois
Ida – Lydia Marchione
Frosch – Jan Pohl

Christopher Alden (director)
Allen Moyer (set designs)
Constance Hoffman (costumes)
Paul Palazzo (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Eun Sun Kim (conductor)
Champagne is constantly evoked in the libretto of Die Fledermaus, an all-too-ready explanation for the events that have taken place or are to follow. As Prince Orlofsky sings, ‘Champagner, König aller Weine! Hoch die sprudelnde Majestät und ihre Untertanen!’ or, as Frank ruefully comments, ‘Der verdammte Champagner!’ We could have done with a few more bubbles here, especially following the interval.

The ultimate question, then, is: what is it that falls a little flat? It is not always easy to put one’s finger on it; by the same token, there are a good few things to admire, so it is perhaps better to put off that question a little longer. As implied above, the first act is on the whole rather fun and indeed much of the rest of the production makes one think. (That is a red rag to the bull of a certain self-satisfied variety of opera-goer, let alone operetta-goer, but who cares?) Christopher Alden’s staging quite rightly does not take the easy road; if one is going to plead the cause for the defence, especially in a case such as this, then one needs to dig beneath the surface. The Overture presents both the gigantic version of Eisenstein’s pocket watch, which will haunt the staging throughout, and figures of bats themselves, before we see the bat. (Incidentally, should ENO not call the operetta, The Bat, rather than employing a German title?) As the performance progresses, we realise that the surrealistic occurrences may not be just that; Rosalinde’s marital bed, one of many handsome designs by Allen Moyer, conjures up fantasies that prefigure Freud, but they are the stuff of the drama itself, not something superimposed. Indeed, the blurring of boundaries between what is ‘dreamed’ and what is ‘real’ is one of the strongest features of Alden’s production. It takes us forward so that, in his words, ‘the ponderous nineteenth-century Victorian bedroom of Act I cracks open to let the fresh air of Act II’s 1920s-ish celebration of loosening up, freedom, and creativity.’  Except, and I suspect this may be where I part company from many others, the problem is not that the production goes too far; I am not sure that it goes far enough. One does not really feel what Alden describes. If there were an ‘orgy’, as I had heard it described prior to the performance, then somehow my friend and I managed to miss it. A little more abandon would not have gone amiss. ‘The reactionary crackdown on subversive degeneracy in Act III’s prison’ likewise does not really come off. Indeed, it seems tacked on, the Nazi thuggishness of Frosch an all-too-easy card to play, a card which, moreover, seems uncertain as to whether it be intended parodically. The alarming overacting of Jan Pohl in the role would seem out of place on just about any stage, or indeed in a 1970s situation comedy; but here, when more subtle expectations have originally been set up, it seems all the more striking a misjudgement, presumably on Alden’s part.

I confess to initial scepticism about the idea of Johann Strauss in English, but if translation must be done, then Daniel Dooner and Stephen Lawless did a fine job indeed, a striking contrast with the previous ENO effort for Fidelio (David Pountney). Whilst all was going well, there was genuine wit to be savoured – and the later problems certainly did not lie with this accomplished translation. Eun Sun Kim’s conducting of the score proved varied. It began in mercilessly hard-driven fashion, but calmed down, and if sometimes it felt more observed than felt from within, there were passages in which the rhythmic lilt was winningly conveyed. For that, of course, the orchestra itself deserves credit too. Yet one could never quite kid oneself that this was the ‘real thing’, a slippery concept, and in repertoire such as this, dangerously amenable to all manner of unpleasant, völkisch interpretations. Perhaps, however, and this goes for the contribution of the cast as well, performances will sound more at ease with themselves as the run continues.

There was much to enjoy from the cast, Tom Randle predictably subtle, no mere caricature, as Eisenstein, and Julia Sporsén an attractively-voiced Rosalinde. Andrew Shore displayed considerable comic as well as musical gifts as Frank. Jennifer Holloway offered vocal depth as Orlofsky, though many of her words were quite incomprehensible, partly no doubt a result of the thick, allegedly ‘Russian’ accent she was obliged to adopt. I continue to find the idea that ‘regional’ or ‘foreign’ accents are intrinsically hilarious at best questionable, but it seems to have become a staple of such events, doubtless as a substitute for genuine comedy. Likewise, if Edgaras Montvidas’s Alfred and Rhian Lois’s Adele tilted too much towards such caricature – probably not their fault at all, certainly jarring with the more interesting aspects of this conflicted production – they offered considerable vocal rewards, as did Lydia Marchione as Ida. Richard Burkhard’s Falke had some problematic moments vocally; Simon Butteriss offered a Dr Blind as camp as (presumably) requested by the director. Choral singing was generally of a high standard. It was, though, that elusive sense of ‘company’ that was perhaps most lacking. Again, that may rectify itself in subsequent performances.

I wonder, though, whether the principal problem lies with the work itself. Of course, one does not expect it to be Parsifal or Saint François d’Assise; even so, it remains rather thin stuff: better than Lehár, no doubt, though otherwise, Offenbach’s wit, style, and satire seem preferable in just about every respect, and perhaps transfer better to a modern, international house. Granted, this is a very difficult genre to get ‘right’; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf claimed to find it trickier than opera. Is it really worth the trouble, though? Perhaps it is better off left to the ‘traditional’ likes of the Volksoper, though Alden et al. certainly merit thanks for trying something more provocative. Given ENO’s puzzling neglect of Richard Strauss – surely a work such as Intermezzo ought to be right up its street – it would probably be better advised to transfer its allegiance to him for the next few Strauss outings. Once a decade or two seems about right for Johann.