Die Fledermaus is a curious choice of work for Northern Ireland Opera, a company which puts on one major operatic production each season. Last year saw a production of Rigoletto in which the musical standards were exceptionally high, with a well chosen selection of international singers cast in the principal roles. A production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd followed in the spring while later this season they will be performing Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.

Ben McAteer (Eisenstein) and Alexandra Lubchansky (Rosalinde)
© Bradley Quinn

Walter Sutcliffe directs Fledermaus in a contemporary setting, more of a posh pantomime for adults, complete with Batman and Robin, a cross-dressing prince and a pantomime dame. The single set is a design of geometric grey patchwork, almost funnel-like, narrowing to a frame at the rear. It acted like a window and was highly effective. With four exits to the wings, these had barred gates added to turn the set into the prison for Act 3. Props were minimal, just a sofa and chair for Eisenstein’s home in Act 1 and a desk for Dr Frank’s office in Act 3's jail. The ball of Act 2 relied on the clichéd decadence of 1970s-style costumes to bring the whole thing to life. Several dancers on roller-skates, in black tutus and fishnet stockings, served drinks at Orlofsky’s ball.

The new English translation, prepared by Sutcliffe and playwright Meredith Oakes, had mixed success. Spoken dialogue had a naturalness but when sung, the text became cumbersome and unnecessarily verbose, inhibiting the flow while blearing the rhythm and clarity of some lines.

Stephan Loges (Dr Falke)
© Bradley Quinn

During the overture an abandoned Dr Falke, bass-baritone Stephan Loges dressed as Batman, sleeps off his excess, whilst an animation projected onto the set created an air of his vivid, occasionally sinister dreams. Loges was aptly cast, being an equal match for both lead parts. Baritone Ben McAteer made a brilliant Eisenstein, characterful and humorous and strongly acted. He was aptly paired with soprano Alexandra Lubchansky as Rosalinde, a perfect partner for him vocally, with an equal amount of charisma.

The Eisenstein’s maid, Adele, dressed initially in a skimpy black dress, complete with white apron, was Northern Irish soprano Maria McGrann. Her coloratura was faultless with secure intonation, but the size of her voice was slightly overshadowed by that of the principal characters. Whilst a talented actress, her sense of drama didn’t match that of McAteer or Lubchansky. Donegal tenor John Porter made an impressive entry, filling the auditorium, his lyrical voice exhibiting much warmth. Prancing around in a shirt and animal-print silk boxer shorts, his acting appeared slightly stiff.

Denis Lakey (Orlofsky) and Chorus
© Bradley Quinn

Prince Orlofsky was sung by countertenor Denis Lakey. Orlofsky is an outrageously flamboyant character and Lakey made the role come to life with great charisma. For the ostentatiously gaudy ball, he was costumed in a red sequin dress, with matching shoes and a wig. His voice projected effortlessly with a vibrato completely intrinsic to the operetta style. However, his diction was disappointingly unclear, so that relying on the surtitles for clarity was essential. Frosch, played by John Linehan – known more locally as pantomime dame May McFettridge – had a very natural stage presence. However, an overly exaggerated Belfast brogue made some lines indistinguishable for those not fully attuned to local colloquialisms.

Dawn Burns as Ida and Conor Breen as Blind were able singers, both very secure in the delivery, but lacked the projection to be heard consistently in ensembles or in the louder passages. Dr Frank was Mark Pancek who captured his part convincingly throughout. His inebriated jail scene featured a gentleman’s magazine, which made several comical appearances as different characters rooted through his desk, unearthing it on a number of occasions.

Despite an unexplained delay of 15 minutes before curtain-up, the musical standards were exceptionally high from the Ulster Orchestra, conductor Gareth Hancock clearly understanding the strengths of the singers, adjusting dynamics appropriately. Jonathan Lakeland prepared a well drilled chorus. Their diction was flawless, crystal clear and executed with precision. Whilst Jennifer Rooney’s choral choreography was good, its execution was disappointing and certainly couldn’t match the high standard of their vocal prowess. The set, marginally too small for the stage, allowed distracting glimpses into the wings, but otherwise it was excellent. Creative lighting from Kevin Smith enhanced the overall experience.