I love Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus because it's utterly, barmily bats. The plot's mad. Jolly tunes distract lest you get too sober. Christopher Alden's production at the Coliseum for the ENO captures the operetta's crazy spirit well. It reflects the music's polyglot diversity: Csárdás, waltzes, Hussar marches, Italian opera, can-can and Tyrolean Ländler. Die Fledermaus really shouldn't be played "straight" or literally, because that's not how the music works.
Shadows of bats fly across luxurious satin drapes, and a huge timepiece hangs from the ceiling. Nothing seems to be happening on stage. This is a great opportunity to listen to the music without distraction: Later, we'll hear ticking sounds in the orchestration - watches, clocks or time bombs? But for now, we can indulge in the escapist frou-frou of the Overture. Perhaps we're in an eternal New Year's Eve Gala where time - and reality - stand still? Eun Sun Kim conducts with more energy than effervesence, but that's perfectly valid. There's so much dance in this music that it should feel physical and exuberant.
Gabriel von Eisenstein (Tom Randle) is supposed to be going to jail but goes to a party instead. As if life were so easy! Rodelinda, his wife, (Julia Sporsén) makes much of marital fidelity but keeps her options open. Adele, her maid (Rhian Lois) has ideas above her station. Prince Orlofsky (Jennifer Holloway) provides them with the means to act out their fantasies, He/she is a woman acting as a man. The "Bat" is Dr Falke (Richard Burkhard) luring Eisenstein into a devious trap. Bats are associated with darkness and with the unconscious. Die Fledermaus, for all its airhead frivolity, has dangerous undercurrents,
At Prince Orlofsky's Ball, everyone turns up in disguise. Prison Governor (Andrew Shore) and Prisoner-to-be pretend to be French aristocrats. Behind a mask, Rodelinda von Eisenstein can manipulate the men around her. Excellent costumes (Constance Hoffman) for the ENO chorus, too, suggesting images of decadence and delusion. Set Designs (Allen Moyer) hint obliquely to silent film. This is an erudite touch, since many early movies dealt with dreams and psychological issues. Indeed, Die Fledermaus was filmed as a silent in 1917, directed by Ernst Lubitsch who made several"opera movies" without sound, such as Gypsy Blood (Carmen) (more here).
Good operetta, good conducting and excellent staging. So why did I, to quote Prince Orlofsky, weep at the "chatter and weariness" of these "scenarios of ennui"?
This is a "numbers" operetta, with long sequences of dialogue between the show tunes. Unless the lines are delivered with quickfire wit, they fall flat like stale champagne. The characters became hammy caricatures. Corny accents aren't funny when everyone is doing them. Here, lively farce descended into hammy end-of-pier pantomime. Some singers can sing with magnificent panache. This cast was good by ENO standards, which are not very high, but not good enough to truly animate their roles. It didn't help that Strauss wrote many opportunities for applause, so the audience dutifully clapped on autopilot, further killing dramatic pace. Mindless clapping makes shows drag. Might it be possible to pare the dialogue down to the minimum, even if it meant losing some of the jokes ? But the real problem is that most singers can't do razor-sharp repartee the way good actors can.