Die Fledermaus is as quintessentially Viennese as zithers and Schnitzel. Its farcical, fizzing plot conjures up a heady whirl of intrigue and revenge, masked balls and Champagne, all set to lilting 3/4 rhythms from the Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss II. The operetta was presented here in John Mortimer’s amiable translation – all very English and full of Rumpole whimsy – which once did service at Covent Garden. In John Wilson, the Philharmonia and a fine ensemble cast, we should have had all the ingredients for a memorable matinée performance, but a few elements meant the fizz went rather flat.
Firstly, dialogue was dispensed with, replaced with a narration, written and delivered by Simon Butteriss, playing Dr Blind, Gabriel von Eisenstein’s lawyer. In setting the scene, mention of Freud was amusing enough (Butteriss featured in Christopher Alden’s Freudian nightmare production at ENO last autumn), but the introduction into the text of topical references such as ‘plebgate’, Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage struck me as smug (in fairness, they seemed to go down better with many in the audience). The narration was at its most awkward when describing conversations where the characters themselves were perfectly placed – and perfectly able – to dispatch the dialogue themselves. Left to his own devices, Alan Opie (playing prison governor Frank) played a solo scene, returning from the ball, which was a masterpiece of comic timing, aided by a drunken bassoon. Narration simply wasn’t required.
Presenting the operetta in English translation was hampered when key cast members, for whom English isn’t their native tongue, couldn’t always deliver their words with clarity. This was less a problem for Pablo Bemsch – Alfred is an Italian tenor after all, albeit one with a glorious disregard for consonants – but Aga Mikolaj’s Rosalinde might as well have been singing in Hungarian for all I knew, so incomprehensible was much of her diction. For the famous csárdás (as the countess ‘Zsa Zsa Gáboria’), the Polish soprano wisely switched to German, where she seemed far more comfortable, delivering a splendid rendition.
The key factor in hobbling this performance was the decision to have the singers amplified. There is a (slim) argument to be made for using microphones to deliver dialogue, but as barely anyone had anything significant to say other than Butteriss’ Dr Blind, I fail to understand the reasoning. Opera in concert is often delivered from this platform, with singers in front of a full symphony orchestra. Here were seasoned opera singers, many more than comfortable in heavier repertoire than this, capable of making themselves heard without the need for microphones. To make matters worse, the levels of amplification veered wildly; Malin Christensson’s Adele sounded less soubrette maid than Wagnerian valkyrie at one point.
All this is a shame, because the musical performances were extremely good. Toby Spence was a wide-eyed, supple-voiced Eisenstein, revelling in the farcical business, while Opie’s Frank proved an able comic foil, aided by his rich baritone. Jacques Imbrailo’s Dr Falke, whose role as author of ‘the bat’s revenge’ was somewhat usurped by Dr Blind, offered some of the afternoon’s finest singing, lavishing “Brother mine”, which grows into a lovely ensemble, with his mellifluous baritone. Pamela Helen Stephen was a game, vodka-infused Prince Orlofsky.
After over-amplification early on, Christensson’s Adele sparkled. She carried off the ‘Laughing Song’ well, with clean coloratura, and in “Sweet country girl is my part”, as Adele comes clean that she’s not an actress after all, she delivered a knock-out punch – literally in this case, accidentally pushing Rebecca Moon’s ‘Ida’ to the floor!
John Wilson was in balletic form on the podium and the Philharmonia responded in stylish fashion. Perhaps Wilson’s rubatos in the pot-pourri Oveture didn’t quite tease enough, but he maintained lively tempi throughout and was attentive to his singers. Not a vintage Fledermaus, then, but one which contained many enjoyable elements despite frustrations with the semi-staging.