Reviews Opera Published 6 October 2013

Die Fledermaus

London Coliseum ⋄ 30th September - 2nd November 2013

Disembodied images.

A. E. Dobson

If this Die Fledermaus were to insist so volubly on its bounty from a studded leather couch, an analyst would be forgiven for taking its protestations for symptoms of lack. Christopher Alden has sought to deepen our experience of Strauss’ operetta by encouraging a darker, psychoanalytic reading of a plot heavily reliant on the comedy trope of costume, disguise and intrigue. The result is less the triumph of style over substance than that of the appearance-of-style over the appearance-of-substance.

The change in emphasis has required more than a few interpretive nuances. Rather, the libretto has undergone good deal of reworking and the roles and relationships of many key characters have subtly changed. Not least, an axillary character now takes centre-stage – family friend and confidant Doctor Falke serves as surrogate for the character of Sigmund Freud. Having diagnosed the malady of hypocrisy in their attitudes to self and each other, the physician invites Rosalinde and Gabriel von Eisentein to an extravagant ball, presented by Alden as a soiree in the subconscious. Increasingly an omnipresent observer of events, Falke waits for the signs of pent-up desire to manifest – and links the realms of dream and reality in his guise of the titular bat.

But as Falke swings astride an enormous pocket-watch hanging above the stage, one cannot help but wonder if he will be as patient in his waiting as the audience. The façade of bourgeois sensibility may  crack open, but the monsters and angels we expect to pour through the breach fail to arrive. The intended tension between ego and id never fully materialises, leaving an insurmountable feeling of restraint to pervade the show.

This is due in part to the art direction, which strikes imposing poses that somehow fail to meld dramatically. Movement instead tends to be pictorial, even painterly; it is compositional, borne of receding lines and the opposition of form and space. This approach gives rise to some memorable scenes: the bedroom of the first act is worthy of German expressionist cinema – it plunges away from us to unfold at an angle so jaunty that the architecture of self-denial seems bound to tumble; later in proceedings, a heap of libertines offset a lonely von Eisenstein, their pastel costumes making a pointillist patchwork against an ivory backdrop. Nice images, but images nonetheless – they are disembodied, burning brightly and floating away. And something important is lost in their formation – there’s simply too much empty space, too much monochromy. The task of colouring falls to lighting designer Paul Palazzo, who grapples admirably with the unenviable task of illuminating thin air.

Elegant as ever, Strauss’ waltzes at least go some way to fill the void. Tom Randle and Julia Sporsén put in strong performances as the von Eisensteins, the latter’s histrionics falling just the right side of melodrama. Playing her solipsistic lover, Edgaras Montvidas benefits from the few genuinely witty turns of the libretto, but he is sadly in short supply. This is a real pity because the little he has to do makes a lasting impression. Casting Jennifer Holloway as Prince Orlofsky is in interesting choice, but whilst her rendering of this louche dilettante is praiseworthy her voice was just a touch too assured and articulated.

But only so much can be done to salvage a work whose subject seems so misaligned with its object. The host has rejected the graft. Guilty of namedropping, this Die Fledermaus alludes to ideas and structures but fails to tether their image to anything concrete. Alden has traced the merest contours of an argument and, as such, this show feels like a sketch for something much bigger.

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A. E. Dobson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Die Fledermaus Show Info


Produced by ENO

Directed by Christopher Alden

Cast includes Tom Randle, Julian Sporsén, Andrew Shore, Jennifer Holloway, Edgaras Montvidas, Richard Burkhard, Simon Butteriss, Rhian Lois, Lydia Marchione, Jan Pohl, Peter Cooney, Tom Fackrell, Stewart Heffernan, Adam Trembath.

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