Bats in the Coliseum’s Belfry

Once in a while you come across a production that makes you scratch your head – why did the company do this? How could anyone ever have thought this worked? But it is rare that you see something that makes you wonder why the institution is in receipt of a public subsidy to present a piece that fails not because it’s daring or experimental, but just because it’s so bad it should never have been staged.

OK, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus is not my favourite lyric drama. I lack the taste for Strauss waltzes, so for me it’s not even a great operetta. I’d rather see almost anything by Offenbach, Lehàr or come to that, Gilbert and Sullivan. But I have seen productions of Fledermaus that I could sit through without wanting to boo or leave before the interval, including a decent production at Glyndebourne in 2003 and a not despicable 1989 revival of the Covent Garden 1977 production with choreography by Frederick Ashton.

This new staging at the English National Opera is co-produced with Toronto, where it was performed last year, which should surely have stopped it being put on at the Coliseum. I (and probably the other national critics) went along because it is directed by Christopher Alden, whose opera track record includes a fine Partenope and a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream; and because the cast includes Tom Randle as Eisenstein and Andrew Shore as Frank.

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What a mistake. I could have better spent the time reading the new thriller, A State of Fear by Joseph Clyde (the nom de plume, we’ve discovered. of an old friend), catching up on Facebook or failing once again to complete The Times crossword puzzle. I’m trying hard here, but I cannot think of a single reason to have suffered through this misbegotten mess.

Mr. Alden has taken a mediocre piece and turned it into a nasty one. He has taken the unusual step of explaining his “concept” in the programme, under the title “Director’s Notes”: he’s given it a Freudian twist, seeing it as the characters’ “quest to turn their fantasies into reality.” So Rosalinde has sexual urges as strong as those of her adulterous husband; she’s “one of Freud’s hysterical women, trapped in a double-standard marriage.” In Dr Falke’s revenge plot he invites everyone to Prince Orlofsky’s rave – which Mr. Alden treats as a “dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein” to shed their daily constraints “just as a Freudian analyst battles to free” his patients from their repressive neuroses, “using their dreams as his most powerful weapon.” And the jailer Frosch, to compound clichés lethally, is “an avatar of the fascistic impulse” between the Wars. OMG, jackboots again. How novel. At least they can use the same footwear in the ENO’s sad Fidelio, with which it alternates until Oct.17.

The ENO’s policy of performing in English of course makes bad worse. Most of the spoken dialogue is lost (even in my seats in stalls Row K), presumably because of the size of the Coliseum – though it is possible that some of the acoustic problems are the fault of the unattractive but monumental sets. You can’t hear the jokes, but as Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner’s translation seems rarely to fit the music anyway (judging from the surtitles), perhaps that’s no bad thing. Strauss has to carry the can for the piece having so much speech, but the best thing a director could do is to compress it.

Making her ENO debut is the young Korean conductor, Eun Sun Kim. What confronted our eyes was mostly so miserable that the best one can say is that there was nothing to complain about in the playing. The wonderful Messrs Randle and Shore were
miscast. Jennifer Holloway’s Prince Orlofsky was fine, but her frenetic movements, like everyone else’s, were silly and painful to watch. Julia Sporsén’s Rosalinde, Rhian Lois’s Adele, Richard Burkhard’s Falke and Simon Butteriss’ Blind were perfectly ok; only Lithuanian Edgaras Montvidas’ tenor stood out from the pack. The reason was not just his strip-tease, but his diction, which made it possible, unlike the enunciation of the others, to hear some of his words. Constance Hoffman’s polymorphously perverse ball costumes were fun. I wanted to throw my shoes at set designer Allen Moyer’s pocket
watch – anything to make it go away.

The ENO used to be a company with a reliable, sometimes outstanding ensemble of actor/singers. The casting director is obviously very busy nowadays, but as very few of the new singers are known to the public yet, their presence on the Coliseum stage can’t be thought to sell tickets. I had thought the artistic director, John Berry, had upped his game. In the past he has engaged many — too many — film and other inexperienced opera directors. Naturally some of these productions didn’t work – but it was commendable experimentation. However, in one month at the ENO we have seen another of Calixto Bieto’s trivially subversive productions (Fidelio), and now the sometimes good Christopher Alden has produced a turkey that wouldn’t even do for a vulgar pantomime Christmas show.

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