Die Fledermaus, ENO

Or, a more
sceptical ‘there’s no accounting for taste’? — for Christopher
Alden’s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at ENO certainly
suggests that he has an idiosyncratic preference for a distinctly dark and
bitter vintage.

The curtain rises on Allen Moyer’s economical, sombre-hued set; flock
wallpaper and silken bed drapes in various ‘shades of grey’ suggest,
ironically, a dampening of the passions in the Eisensteins’ Victorian
bedroom. As the polkas and waltzes of Strauss’s overture flutter from the
pit, between the sheets Rosalinde tosses and turns, lunging at the air,
clutching the plump pillows, writhing and wriggling, the luscious melodies
presumably illustrative of her erotic dreaming. And, when winged bat-women
sweep menacingly across the bedroom, we infer the stuff of her nightmares.
Above hangs an outsize model of Eisenstein’s pocket watch — the very watch
that will later incriminate him when he attempts to seduce a mysterious
Hungarian Countess — pendulously, hypnotically swinging, a ‘path to the
subconscious’, the director declares.

So, Alden envisages his characters as psychiatric case studies: their Vienna
is a socially and emotionally repressive prison, and Falke a bat-cloaked
Nosferatu, tempting them to turn the frustrated fantasies of their subconscious
into corporeal fulfilment. An interesting conceit. But, one which quickly runs
aground, the bubbly turning distinctly flat. For, Alden imposes a threatening
subliminal world on a musical score which speaks of light-hearted,
self-indulgent escapism, and on a libretto which is more farce than
psychoanalytical theory. And the disjuncture — a psychiatric ‘split’ —
is as large as the fissure which cracks the Victorian chamber wall at the end
of Act 1. The music whizzes by, an ear-pleasing stream of movement and melody,
while the action on stage stultifies, the characters as comatose as if they lay
on a consulting couch.

Things might have been better if Alden had truly allowed his characters to
‘slip free from societal constraints and sip the heady champagne of pleasure
and fulfilment’ in the Act 2 ball. But, while he declares that Falke invites
his pawns to a ‘dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein to
transcend their quotidian selves’, in fact the chasm in the wall of restraint
opens on a distinctly dreary and featureless room, billed as Art Deco but
consisting merely of a sweeping back-curtain — garishly lit by the
psychedelic colours of Paul Palazzo’s lighting — and a nondescript
staircase. Indeed, the occasional swivels of the stairway are the only
indication that a dance might be underway, for the large chorus of
cross-dressed, under-dressed revellers show little inclination to wiggle and
frolic. Epitomising the absence of physical exuberance, they sing the rousing
finale standing stock still on the stairway; a freeze-frame snap of a Hollywood
sequence, this troupe hardly look ready to ‘dance all night’.

ENO-Die-Fledermaus_02.gifRichard Burkhard and Tom Randle

This immobility matters. The polkas and waltzes are not merely tuneful
decorations but convey the sentiments of the text. Thus, it is with a waltz
that the seducer, Alfredo, lures Rosalinde to drown her cares in champagne.
And, Rosalinde saves her own reputation at the end of Act 1 with a polka which
dupes Frank, the prisoner governer, into believing that Alfredo is her husband.
Adele reads her sister’s letter inviting her to the party to the
accompaniment of yet another polka; while the disguised Adele defends herself
from Eisenstein’s attentions with a waltz, ‘My dear Marquis’. Falke’s
gentle, sentimental waltz at the climax of the ball has hints of melancholy, as
he toasts brotherhood and love. The characters are always dancing, and if they
are dancing they are also probably seducing. Thus, motionless leads to

The translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner is full of witty
rhyming repartee, but on this opening night many of the words were lost in the
set’s vast empty spaces and the audience, with little on stage to indicate
that a gag was on the way, largely remained in silent bafflement.

Not surprisingly, the cast struggle to establish credible, engaging
characters and dramatic momentum. Even Tom Randle looked a bit lost as
Eisenstein, though he sang with his usual power and lyricism. Andrew Shore, as
a gender-bending Frank, used his considerable acting talents to get things
moving along; and Edgaras Montvidas was a delightfully disreputable and foppish
Alfred, demonstrating an appreciation of the absurd elements of the opera which
Alden tried hard to bury beneath the Freudian symbolism. Richard Burkhard
presented an assured Falke, a confident, slick Nick Shadow figure —although
it was hard for the ‘master-of-ceremonies’ to impose his presence in the
final Act, given that he spent its entirety in an airborne state, perched
precariously on the suspended timepiece.

The rest of the cast were ultimately unable to overcome Alden’s static
direction. Rosalinde is envisaged as a Freudian case study: a ‘hysterical
woman’, trapped in a repressive marriage to a philandering husband, denied
sexual fulfilment. Given that she was largely confined to her bed in Act 1 —
albeit, sharing it with a host of others — and directed to sing her Cs·rd·s
from a stationary position on the far left of the stage, it was hardly
surprising that Julia SporsÈn was a rather underwhelming Rosalinde.

As Prince Orlovsky — no longer presented wryly en travesti but
rather as a neurotic, misanthropic lesbian — Jennifer Holloway also struggled
to convince. Orlovsky’s philosophy is that if he is intent on
hedonistic fun, then so must all his guests indulge to excess, but as Holloway
pounded the walls in self-pitying misery, it was hard to imagine a
less hospitable party host. Holloway’s tone was warm and rich but a
thick European accent muffled the text. Rhian Lois’s Adele was a bit too
close to caricature, but her two showpiece arias were bright and vivacious, the
‘Laughing Song’ especially sparkly.

Simon Butteriss and Jan Pohl did their best with the bizarre
characterisation of Dr Blind, Eisenstein’s incompetent lawyer, and Frosch,
the prison jailor — the latter presented as an S&M obsessed Nazi, prone
to violent spasms and vicious brutality.

Billed as ‘dangerous and sexy’, Alden’s production is in fact dull and
soporific. Conductor Eun Sun Kim drew some infectious, sweet playing from the
ENO orchestra, but the dances didn’t quite float and spin with the necessary
weightless frothiness. Although Alden admits that the ‘hedonistic waltzes of
Die Fledermaus ultimately sweep away its darker connotations in a
tsunami of champagne’, in this instance the popping of corks was confined to
the pit and a few vocal highpoints, and the end result was distinctly lacking
in fizz.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gabriel von Eisenstein, Tom Randle; Rosalinde, Julia SporsÈn; Frank,
Andrew Shore; Prince Orlovsky, Jennifer Holloway; Alfred, Edgaras Montvidas; Dr
Falke, Richard Burkhard; Dr Blind, Simon Butteriss; Adele, Rhian Lois; Ida,
Lydia Marchione; Frosch, Jan Pohl; Actors, Peter Cooney, Tom Fackrell, Stewart
Heffernan, Adam Trembath; Director, Christopher Alden; Set Designer, Allen
Moyer; Lighting Designer, Paul Palazzo; Costume Designer, Constance Hoffman;
Conductor, Eun Sun Kim; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English
National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 30th September 2013.

image_description=Jennifer Holloway and Andrew Shore [Photo by Robert Workman]
product_title=Die Fledermaus, ENO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Jennifer Holloway and Andrew Shore

Photos by Robert Workman