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Die Fledermaus, ENO

‘Chacun à son goût!’ cries the inebriated Prince Orlovsky, invigorated by champagne and high-living. An indifferent ‘each to his own’?

Die Fledermaus, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jennifer Holloway and Andrew Shore

Photos by Robert Workman


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 meaninglessness.

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 Csárdás from a stationary position on the far left of the stage, it was hardly surprising that Julia Sporsén 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 Sporsén; 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.

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