John Copley’s production of Die Fledermaus retains its champagne sparkle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / James Southall (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 14.10.2017. (GPu)

Die Fledermaus, Welsh National Opera; photo credit - Bill Cooper.
WNO’s Die Fledermaus (c) Bill Cooper

Rosalinde – Judith Howarth
Eisenstein – Mark Stone
Adele – Rhian Lois
Alfred – Paul Charles Clarke
Falke – Ben McAteer
Dr. Blind – Joe Roche
Colonel Frank – James Cleverton
Prince Orlofsky – Anna Harvey
Ida – Angharad Morgan
Ivan – George Newton-Fitzgerald
Frosch – Steve Speirs

Director – John Copley
Revival Director – Sarah Crisp
Designer – Tim Reed
Costume Designer – Deirdre Clancey
Lighting Designer – Howard Harrison
Choreographer – Stuart Hopps
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris

 This production of Strauss’s sparkling operetta, directed by John Copley, was first staged by Welsh National Opera in February 2011. I have now seen it a number of times. Indeed, I reviewed it earlier this year. I have chosen to review it again, only a few months later, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of some interesting changes of personnel. Then Rosalinde was sung by Mary-Elizabeth Williams, now by Judith Howarth; four months ago the role of Prince Orlovsky was taken by Emma Carrington, now the role was interpreted by Anna Harvey; then the conductor was Thomáš Hanus, now the baton was in the hands of James Southall. Secondly, because Die Fledermaus seems to me to be one of the very finest of operettas and almost always worth seeing. Thirdly, because after the intense bleakness of two splendid productions earlier in the season, of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Strauss’s bubbling operetta, with its very different perspective on Russian aristocracy, in the person of Prince Orlovsky, seemed likely to provide a kind of musical restorative, or at any rate a substantial change of mood, quality champagne after the prison gruel and smuggled vodka of From the House of the Dead, as it were.

Copley’s production doesn’t pursue originality for its own sake. Indeed, the production, in terms both of Tim Reed’s set and Deirdre Clancey’s costumes, might be called ‘old-fashioned’. In making such a choice Copley, it seems to me, was recognising that Die Fledermaus is not, like the greatest of operas, timeless. It is, rather, specific to a particular time and place, to a particular kind of society. In putting a convincing image of that society in front of his audience, while eschewing the pursuit of archaeological accuracy, Copley ensures the internal coherence of the work – an essential consideration where farce is concerned. As such the audience is left to its own devices to recognise (or not) any applications the work might have for their time and place.

Tim Reed’s set is thoroughly functional, enabling all the precisely timed entrances and exits, the overhearings, and failures to hear, or to see through a simple disguise, that the machinery of farce requires. At the same time, in Acts I and II it presents us with plausible images if a bourgeois household and of aristocratic grandeur – the relationship between the classes being a major theme of the work.

With regard to the cast changes: to put it simply (perhaps simplistically) Howarth is a better actress than Williams, while Williams possesses the more remarkable voice. Though their strengths and weaknesses are thus different, each makes a watchable (and listenable) Rosalinde. Where prince Orlovsky is concerned, I found it hard to discriminate between Emma Carrington and Anna Harvey. They even look a lot like one another, from midway back in the stalls at any rate – both sing well, both create a psychologically plausible Orlovsky. Both are attractively animated presences, on stage and vocally.

One of the joys of the production is the consistent wit of the sung translation by David Pountney and Leonard Hancock (particularly in its use of rhyme), and the humour of at least some of John Copley’s spoken dialogue. For all the elements in the production that are specific to nineteenth-century Vienna, there are enough jokes which are meaningful for an audience in the twenty first century. There is some effective physical humour, too.

For me, the Adele of Rhian Lois stood out even more than it did earlier in the year. Her singing seemed more assured and her acting livelier and more precise. Perhaps her interpretation had matured in the intervening months, or perhaps I was simply more responsive this time around. She went close to stealing the show, vivacious, sharp of mind and tongue, her Adele becoming more and more self-confident as the evening proceeded. While her bourgeois master and mistress enjoyed playing at being aristocrats, a French Marquis and a Hungarian Countess, here was a housemaid who was really transcending her working-class origins. It is obviously futile to speculate on what happens to fictional characters once the work is over, but it is hard to imagine this Adele going quietly back to being a maid.

The Alfred(o) of Paul Charles Clarke seemed more sure-footed too, his fragments of Italian opera more pointed and the character invested with more zest than it was a few months ago. Another highlight was the Frosch of Steve Speirs, who contrived to give his amusing observations (on opera in general, the orchestra, the conductor, and much else) an air of freshness and spontaneity, though most of the jokes were as they had been a few months ago. The perfection of his comic timing keeps them alive in the moment. (Speirs, incidentally, can currently be seen on TV as Burbage in Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow, the Shakespearean situation comedy.)

The conducting of Tomáš Hanus rightly attracted much praise from reviewers, myself included, when Die Fledermaus was performed back in the early summer of this year. It is, then, gratifying to be able to report that the work of the much less experienced James Southall – he was teased about his youth by the Frosch of Steve Speirs – stood up to the comparison very well. He directed a performance both tight and fluent, rhythmically exciting and supportive of the singers (and dancers) on stage. The orchestra seemed to be relishing the music a good deal, and, especially in the orchestral preludes, notably that to Act III, there was some outstanding playing.

I seem to have enjoyed this production more each successive time that I have seen it. Whether that says something about me, or whether it tells one that this is a production which needs a process of maturation, like the champagne it celebrates so eloquently, I am not sure. I do know that I shall be happy to see it yet again when it is next revived.

Glyn Pursglove

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