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October 1, 2013 5:11 pm
There comes a point in Johann Strauss’s operetta when Eisenstein utters the line “Please explain, someone, what the hell is going on?” It would have made a good starting point for a post-performance discussion of Christopher Alden’s staging at English National Opera. Despite a “director’s note” in the programme, it is never remotely clear where the action is taking place, who the characters are or what relationship the scenario has to the plot.
Alden tries to portray Die Fledermaus as some kind of time-travel allegory embracing Freud and fascism, with Frosch the gaoler (Jan Pohl) as a death camp commandant. It’s all supposedly bound up with the cycle of repression and freedom in our lives (humdrum reality and erotic fantasy) and in the socio-political swings of history. What it amounts to in the theatre is a crash course in abstruse conceptualism – with the emphasis on “crash”.
It’s not a complete shambles: Alden, whose career has long swung on a pendulum between wild insights and equally wild flops, is too adroit a stage manager for that. But he destroys everything Die Fledermaus stands for – sentiment, wit, social satire. As an exhortation to drown our sorrows in alcohol, the work’s underbelly may be serious, but on stage “bitterness must turn to bliss in sweet forgetfulness”, as Rosalinde and Alfred sing in their Act One tryst.
In other words, Die Fledermaus should be as much an exercise in escapism for us today as it was for its first audience in 1874, a year after the Vienna stock market crash. Above all it needs to make us laugh and go out humming its tunes. In Alden’s scenario, everything is drab and artificial – sets, costumes, characters. Why didn’t John Berry, ENO’s artistic director, pull the plug when he saw it last year in Toronto?
In her ENO debut, Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim swings between clockwork tempi and excessive rubato. Jennifer Holloway’s Orlofsky gives a star performance as a psychotic junkie and Andrew Shore’s Frank does his magnificent best to rescue something from the nonsense around him, but Tom Randle’s Eisenstein, Julia Sporsén’s Rosalinde, Edgaras Montvidas’ Alfred and Richard Burkhard’s Falke are subdued by Alden’s tedious charade.
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