The British have almost as big a problem with Viennese operetta as they do with French. It’s a question of style and tone. Sung in English, Die Fledermaus invariably turns into an old-fashioned comedy of class, with cut-glass accents for Eisenstein and his cronies and something “regional” for Frosch the gaoler. It never works, because even a century ago the English upper class had nothing like the insouciance of Johann Strauss’s haute bourgeoisie. The comedy ends up stiff and contrived.
The only time it didn’t, in recent memory, was when Catalan director Calixto Bieito staged Die Fledermaus for Welsh National Opera in 2002. It was a hoot from start to finish, not just because of the huge liberties he took but also for the way he got the cast to let their hair down. Of course, it shocked many who saw it – a sure gauge of its success – but it had teeth. This latest WNO version, directed by John Copley, is tame, static, insipid, with little to laugh at – unless you are amused by references to Bill Oddie, Katherine Jenkins and the Gocompare television advert. The WNO chorus behaves as if it was on sedatives, and the orchestra under Thomas Rösner lacks fizz.
It is hardly the fault of the designers, Tim Reed and Deirdre Clancy, who provide a serviceable reproduction of belle époque. Nor can you blame the principals, who sing sweetly – and, in the case of Mark Stone’s stylish Eisenstein and Alan Opie’s engagingly Blimp-ish Frank, aspire to high-quality farce.
Otherwise, the humour is so sickeningly genteel that you wonder what kind of never-never land Copley imagines these characters inhabit. The Italian opera joke he has invented for Alfred and Rosalinde (Paul Charles Clarke and Nuccia Focile) is overworked, and you can’t help thinking the nimble, foreign-accented Focile and the plump, posh-sounding Joanne Boag (as the chambermaid Adele) would have been better swapping roles.
There is not a hint of nostalgia and sadness in the Brüderlein scene, nor a whiff of the cynicism or hypocrisy in which Strauss’s characters are steeped.