Bam! Wham! Pow! Fulham Opera’s Entertaining Die Fledermaus is a Must-See

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus: Soloists and Orchestra of Fulham Opera / Tom Newall (conductor). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 11.11.2016. (JPr)

Dress rehearsal photo from Fulham Opera’s Die Fledermaus (c) David Greeney

Rosalinde – Alinka Kozari
Adele – Luci Briginshaw
Eisenstein – Jonathan Finney
Orlofsky – Mae Heydorn
Alfred – Peter Kent
Falke – Peter Brooke
Frank – Matthew Duncan
Blind – Jeremy Vinogradov
Ida – Jennifer Begley

Director – Peter Relton
Costume Design – Maryna Gradnova
Lighting Design – Tom Mannings
Film Design – Laurence Relton

I have deep affection for Fulham Opera and all they do at their venue, St John’s Church, in southwest London. My visits have mirrored the ongoing renovation of the church from the earliest days of sparse attendance, rickety seats, dusty hassocks and a tinny piano, to first-class opera virtually ‘in the round’ with the reduced orchestra (of 11) we get now for its increasing audience; many happy – like me – to come back time and again.

A director of considerable renown, Peter Relton, provides an entertaining ‘take’ on Die Fledermaus, not so much ‘The Bat’ as ‘Batman’ in its Bam! Wham! Pow! 1960s’ TV incarnation which is remembered by those of my vintage, but might puzzle anyone more familiar with the recent film or TV reboots. Add in the zeitgeist which ranged from London of the ‘Swinging 60s’ to the jailer, Frosch, as a relic of San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’ and tripping (in the acid sense) along her ‘cosmic superhighway’. It was sung in English which was basically from David Pountney but with added topical and superhero-related dialogue and lyrics by Liza Graham. You will get the idea with the exchange between Orlofsky and Adele something along the lines of ‘What do you think of Anton Chekhov?’ to which the reply was ‘I think he is cuter than Kirk or Spock’!

As the overture starts, Eisenstein settles into an armchair with a drink to enjoy a captioned silent film (from Laurence Relton) depicting his original humiliation of Falke. He is brought to a party and plied with drinks. Falke wakes up next day on a bench in the churchyard of St John’s in his underpants and part-Batman costume! This provides a super premise for Falke getting his revenge on the unwitting Eisenstein. He accompanies him to Orlofsky’s party and also invites the prison governor, Frank, Eisenstein’s maid, Adele, and his wife, Rosalinde, who thinks Eisenstein is spending the night in jail. In Act I Rosalinde has been ‘entertaining’ the Italian tenor, Alfred, in her husband’s absence and he has been mistakenly carted off to jail; in the end husband and wife – who have been somewhat estranged – are happily reconciled and Eisenstein accepts the joke was on him. The party in Act II involves Adele and Ida as batgirls, Rosalinde as Countess Kitka aka Catwoman, Eisenstein as Mr J (The Joker), Frank as The Penguin and Falke, himself, as – logically – The Riddler. The sight of Orlofsky will haunt my dreams for months to come – a cross-dresser in high heels with deep five o’clock shadow, long curly, reddy-pink hair crowned with ivy and a husky Russian accent. Accompanied by her four slinky Maenads, he/she looked like a genetic experiment gone wrong involving Dionysus (or Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present), Russell Brand and Eddie Izzard …but this Orlofsky remained strangely attractive nonetheless!

An important line for me in this 1874 work is ‘Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was doch nicht zu ändern ist’ which can be translated ‘Happy is he who forgets what can no longer be changed’. I have to reword that into ‘try to forget what has gone before’ – but that is very difficult when my memories of this entertaining work include having seen memorable performers in it such as by Adele Leigh, Hermann Prey, Marilyn Hill Smith, Eric Shilling, Alan Opie … and even Frankie Howerd in the 1980s as Frosch, the non-singing jailer. I never try to compare (honestly) but how did this now rank alongside previous performances in Vienna or London I have seen? Well enough and there was some delicious fizz even though the champagne was sometimes of a so-so vintage and just a little flat at times, but I never doubted the hard work and wonderful talent of all concerned.

Enhancing the dialogue made for a long evening approaching 3½ hours. I have seen Die Fledermaus reduced in length by having a narrator and perhaps something like this might have been better. The biggest problem is that Die Fledermaus needs full-blown operatic voices combined with straight-theatre expertise in delivering all the dialogue. Unless everyone is totally familiar with the idiom of operetta you will have – as here – some wonderful singers but not always the most quick-witted singing actors. I don’t know whether Fulham Opera’s Patron, Sir Thomas Allen – who was an accomplished Eisenstein – was sought for his advice. This Die Fledermaus only took off for me with Act II when the cartoonish and psychedelic world of Peter Relton – who directs Tosca at Grange Park Opera’s new West Horsley theatre next summer – comes to witty and dynamic life.

Any Fledermaus needs a superlative Rosalinde and Alinka Kozari had several of the qualities to approach being as good as necessary. She has a big, gleaming soprano and while not very convincing in her Act I dalliances with her tenor, Alfred, Kozari seemed much happier in her Catwoman costume, purring wonderfully throughout Act II, as well as, carrying off her Csárdás with aplomb.  Fulham Opera has two further stars in the Adele of Luci Briginshaw and Mae Heydorn’s hedonistic Orlofsky: Luci was a pert and feisty Adele and Mae really lived her part, acting with real flair and making light of any vocal challenges.

The men were perhaps not quite so remarkable, but there were still many fine performances: Jonathan Finney’s Eisenstein, whilst lacking in that last ounce of panache at present, was a credibly bumptious, louche rake though his voice is not entirely suited to operetta. Matthew Duncan was a very confident Frank, with a rich burnished baritone voice and comedic stage presence to match. Peter Kent (the director of this Fledermaus) revealed a remarkably agile Italianate tenor as Alfred – I loved all the interpolated snatches of opera including ‘Nessun dorma’ and Florestan’s ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!’ referring to his incarceration. Not – like me – blessed with a heroic stature means for Peter Kent singing’s loss is opera directing’s gain!

Peter Brooke’s Falke, Jeremy Vinogradov’s Blind and Jennifer Begley’s Ida were all enjoyable characterisations and fine singing performances. Janet Fischer – Fulham Opera’s managing director – enjoyed herself immensely as a hippy-dippy Frosch and a small chorus of 9 did some great work. Under Tom Newall’s enthusiastic baton, it was a delight to hear Strauss’s glorious melodies – the waltzes, polkas, galops, and folk tunes – once again even in Jonathan Finney’s vastly reduced orchestrations. Coming to the end of this review I must write how I prefer – because of my heritage – Johann to Richard Strauss; so – once it got going in Act II – Fulham Opera’s Die Fledermaus did make me rather ‘homesick’ for Vienna.

Finally, what an absolutely delight it was as the special guest at Orlofsky’s party to hear Yvonne Howard roll back the years and singing – accompanied by Andrew Robinson on the piano – an overwhelmingly passionate and irresistibly seductive ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, with Mae Heydorn staying impeccably in character as Orlofsky and contributing Samson’s words.

Jim Pritchard

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