‘I do love Gilbert and Sullivan’, the jailor Frosch earnestly declares as he mimes The Blue Danube with the assistance of his clanging prison keys in the third act of Opera Holland Park’s new staging of Die Fledermaus. The humourous solecism is archetypal of an evening that so readily fuses the grand Viennese waltzes and style of Johann Strauss II’s buoyant score with a thoroughly English sensibility. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s staging sets the scene not in fin de siècle Vienna but rather in the roaring London of the early twentieth-century.
The hollow glamour and the black tie carousing calls to mind the Bright Young Things as the domestic deceits of the Eisensteins evoke Noel Coward. Unusually for Opera Holland Park, the work is presented in English translation; Alistair Beaton’s adaptation sparkles with wit enough to match Strauss’s glittering score without descending entirely into slapstick. The whole works beautifully, re-imagining the operetta in a distinctly English vein that nevertheless brims with the operetta’s native Viennese flair and charm.
The evening is a delight. John Rigby conducts the City of London Sinfonia in an energetic and stylish account of the score, which they play beautifully. The strings soar with verve, the comedy deftly painted and Prince Orlofsky’s party flourishing with élan. It all resounds with an impressively light, Viennese elegance, perfect complement to Adam Scown’s impressive choreography and the adroit comic timing of a talented cast.
One of the ironies of a thoroughly ironic work is that for all its frothiness, any production of Fledermaus requires a tremendous amount of accomplishment in order to succeed. Opera Holland Park manages the impressive feat of getting the comedy and the style right, but the virtuosity of the singing – particularly that of Rosalinde and her maid, Adele – is not always as easy to achieve.
Which brings me to a full measure of praise for the virtuosic assumption of Adele by Jennifer France. She was incredibly funny in the domestic scenes in the first act; a nice bit of direction has her in an adjoining bathroom to the Eisenstein’s bedroom during the trio ‘O Gott, wie rührt mich dies’, enjoying a cheeky cigarette before joining her employers next door. Her soprano simply dazzled in its agile upper register, her coloratorua in the Laughing Song (‘Mein Herr Marquis’) nimble and bright. I would have been happy to have attended the performance purely to have heard her Adele.
Happily, she was matched by an ideal Rosalinde in Susanna Hurrell. The translation of the libretto allowed for a particularly English class sensibility to be injected into the work, and she captured upper-class hauteur with a precision of condescension in gesture and accent. Watching her descent from disdainful ruler of her household and would-be adulteress in the first act to her humiliation at the hands of her unknowing husband in Act II was surprisingly moving. Her portrayal of the masked Hungarian countess was spot on and very funny. She capped off her performance with a stunning Czárdás which showed off the full range of her soprano, flowing easily through the tessitura from a rich lower register to a impressively crystalline top notes. It was easily a highlight of an already impressive evening.
The role of Gabriel von Eisenstein was assumed by Ms. Hurrell’s real life husband, the tenor Ben Johnson. Mr. Johnson has a beautiful, sonorous voice which was well suited to his character’s ill-fated attempts at caddishness. His would-be philandering brings him to flirting shamelessly with a woman he does not realise is actually his wife in disguise; their Watch Duet in Act II was delightful, well sung and highly entertaining.
Gavan Ring made an impeccable Dr. Falke. Tall and proud, he pulls the strings behind the plot which lead the Eisenstein household to Prince Orlofsky’s decadent party in Act II, setting up his revenge on von Eisenstein for the cruel joke perpetrated against him in the past. Eisenstein’s joke, which serves as the lynchpin of Falke’s revenge plot and therefore the story as a whole, rarely strikes as particularly funny, but Mr. Ring made the most of it. He steered the evening’s travails with sinister mastery, and sang a lovely “Brüderlein und Schwesterlein” to boot.
The era in which the production is set is made the most of by designer takis with glorious Art Deco panels of fanning sunbursts in yellow and silver. These engird the Eisenstein’s bedroom in the first act, with a brightly blue bathroom next door divided by a curtain; they open in the party scene in Act II, joined by pillows, couches, and a pyramid of champagne saucers which overflow with the king of wine at the end of the Champagne Aria. The far left of the stage features a few artfully sculpted bars which become the prison in the third act, where the evening ends with von Eisenstein locked in jail at last for a frivolous crime committed against the French diplomat before the operetta begins.
The Deco set-design, coupled with Howard Hudson’s immaculate lighting, is very stylish, blending seamlessly with the masked black-tie ensemble of Prince Orlofsky’s party. Samantha Price assumes the role of the jaded Russian aristocrat with more humour than most, unveiling her own deception in an amusing directorial conceit in the third act. She lends a spirit of lightness to the proceedings, singing ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ with charm. Orlofsky is known for the moral decadence of his parties, and the end of Act II finds the guests descending into a pansexual frolic, searching for partners and stripping off their clothes while Ms. Hurrell’s injured Rosalinde watches her husband from afar. An unexpected burlesque fan dance, executed with captivating style by Didi Derrière forms the centrepiece of the party’s lapse into sexual degeneracy.
Joanna Marie Skillett makes an elegant Ida, Robert Burt an amusing Dr. Blind, and John Lofthouse an exceptionally funny Frank. Some of the comedy with the police was stilted at points, making that journey a shade too close to slapstick; on the whole, however, the production succeeds in being very funny. Ian Jervis is a thoroughly amusing as Frosch, though his interpolated rattling off of other prisoners in the jail – this includes a cataloguing of politicians and Brexit champions, from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to Jeremy Corbyn, who refuses to leave his imprisonment despite being repeatedly begged by everyone to do so – while comically delivered, would have benefitted from a little trimming. In fairness, however, the third act of the piece always feels a little overlong, and this is no fault of this particular production.
The most recent production of Fledermaus in London that memory calls to mind is Christopher Alden’s for ENO – which was, if you will forgive the terrible pun, rather batty in its surreal cynicism. Mr. Lloyd-Evans’s production for Opera Holland Park is, by comparison, triumphant, accomplished, and simply a great deal of fun. The darkness underlying the work’s sparkle is done full justice, Dr. Falke’s revenge savagely realised as von Eisenstein languishes behind bars and, in this version, is icily left by his wife rather than receiving the usual hint at reconciliation.
Yet the joy of the ensemble and the joie de vivre of the orchestra is what stays with one at the end of a very fine evening. It is a superb ensemble production that in all its polish is better than any operetta I can recall seeing on a London stage in quite some time. It is highly recommended as the perfect complement to the English summer.
John E. de Wald
(Photos : Robert Workman)