Strauss: Die Fledermaus

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 7th September 2013 1 star

FidelioThe Coliseum curtain was already up; a large and luxurious bed to one side of the vast, empty stage, a giant pocket watch suspended ominously over the other. The overture began and Rosalinde was revealed, alone in bed, writhing about in the throes of an obviously erotic dream, occasionally trying to swat at an invasion of projected bats, before the Dracula-like figure of Dr Falke entered to hover menacingly over her…

I hadn’t seen a Fledermaus at ENO since the last performances of Tom Hawkes’s successful (and traditional) production in the 1980s and was wondering just what director Christopher Alden would make of a piece that – in the UK at least – might feel like a relic of a bygone age of (relative) innocence. Alden’s solution was to sex-and-psychoanalyse it up – with disastrous results.

One of the problems with his big idea – and there are many – is that Freud didn’t actually invent sex; Strauss’s whipped-cream confection is full of it, fizzing away quite happily: it just isn’t dressed in suspenders, brandishing a whip and threatening to sit on your face.

It’s obvious from the outset that Alden had no faith in the original text and was simply determined to put it through his Freudian konzeptual wringer: a sexually frustrated Rosalinde (Julia Sporsén) is trapped in a joyless marriage to Eisenstein (Tom Randle) and is repeatedly hypnotised by the notebook-wielding Dr Falke (Richard Burkhard, looking like Donald Pleasence playing Freud); Prison Governor Frank (a wasted Andrew Shore) is a closet cross-dresser; Prince Orlovsky (Julia Holloway) isn’t so much jaded by worldly pleasures as a howling, certifiable lunatic, and so on. Each character performs in a sort of solipsistic trance state, delivering dialogue as if it’s in quotation marks and behaving like an automaton. This might fit well with Alden’s enforced Freudian schema, but it makes nonsense of the story.

Unless there are some sparks between Rosalinde and her errant husband, none of what follows makes sense; the fault may be largely in the direction, but there is a chronic lack of magnetism between the two leads here. By the same token, once you remove all social context, then comedy (especially something as close to farce as is Die Fledermaus) simply doesn’t work. Even more than drama, comedy relies on social distinction and social relation; and relation is what brings characters to life and gives then meaning. Alden has decided that none of this is required, and that he’ll get by instead with that old chestnut of outrageous sexual desires simmering beneath the decorous surface of bourgeois life.

All very well, but quite unnecessary; this conflict between the mores of polite society and the insistent demands of the pleasure principle is already the animating principle behind the score (as the first act’s “So muss allein ich bleiben… O je, o je, wie ruhrt nich dies!” makes perfectly clear); adding a layer of Freudian dream symbolism tells us nothing we don’t already know and turns the evening into a perverse exercise in anti-fun.

The second act – which really ought to be fun – gave us ENO’s usual idea of a party: a ghastly parade of semi-clad tarts, dominatrices and ageing trannies, all shuffling about like zombies. For large chunks of the action – including the disguised Rosalinde’s Czardas – they disappeared completely, leaving the stage so empty – apart from a big Hollywood-style staircase stranded in the middle – that you half expected tumbleweed to start blowing through. By this point, a chill had swept through the auditorium; the jokes (those that there were) fell horribly flat, and the audience (those who hadn’t nodded off) suffered largely in silence.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we segued straight into the final act and hit rock bottom. Drunken jailor Frosch (come back Fulton Mackay, all is forgiven) is here a jackbooted Nazi thug who has the cast and chorus locked up in his “entertaining little prison” – a line he repeats over and over again, to mystifying effect – to be humiliated and roughed up. We’d already had cod-Freud, cod-Hollywood and cod-surrealism, so cod-Nazis (bizarrely, Jan Pohl is a German actor but sounded like an extra from Colditz) were, I suppose, no great stretch.

In his amusingly pretentious programme notes Alden explains that his big, swinging clock is supposed to show how the pendulum of history moves from repression to license and back again. Alternatively, it could be read as a warning: “Time will hang heavy at the Coliseum tonight… you are feeling sleepy…” Even with swingeing cuts to the dialogue and most of the gags removed, this felt like a long – no, interminable – evening that sapped the life out of the work and the audience. I’ve known whole Ring Cycles fly by in what felt like half the time.

Sadly, things weren’t much better from a musical point of view. Tom Randle’s Eisenstein sounded pinched and surly throughout, and struggled to project his dialogue with any degree of conviction. Sporsén, who was impressive in Martinu’s Julietta last year – just didn’t have the vocal presence to bring off a convincing Rosalinde; her Czardas – delivered, admittedly, to an empty stage – was a major disappointment. Edgaras Montvidas as Alfredo – dressed up, for whatever reason, like Don Giovanni before getting his kit off – seemed to be chanelling Kenny Everett, both dramatically and vocally in a performance that can only be described as strange.

Adele was the only role which retained anything resembling a personality, and Rhian Lois did her best with it; but the overdone comedy Welsh routine, seemingly plucked straight from Gavin and Stacey and bafflingly out of place in inter-war Vienna, was a one-note affair, and her singing too never really got beyond the sort of inbuilt brashness of the characterisation. The one performance that made a real impression was that of the excellent Julia Holloway, who somehow managed an idiomatic and genuinely Straussian turn as Orlovsky, despite being called upon to lollop about the stage like a monkey and howl like a loon.

The young Korean conductor Eu Sun Kim was efficient rather than convincing in this music; but even brisk tempos couldn’t help breathe any life into proceedings; too tightly-wound rhythms and a lack of flexible rubato meant that what was coming out of the pit was as far from echt-Wienerisch as what was happening on stage.

All on all, a truly wretched evening that achieved the seemingly impossible: making Strauss’s life-affirming paean to champagne-fuelled pleasure utterly depressing. Why this Canadian co-production wasn’t dumped mid-Atlantic before reaching our shores remains a mystery. Still, if you like your sekt flat, then this could be for you. Frankly, never in my life have I been so relieved to get out of an opera house and into a public one.

By David Sutton

Photos: Robert Workman