It’s a curious thing that when operatic characters are drinking at a party, they invariably sing about how nice it is to be drinking at a party – never sports results, or the weather, or how all them bleedin’ ’ungarians are coming over to Austria and taking all our jobs... The guests at Prince Orlovsky’s ball in the second act of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus are no exception, adding their “Im Feuerstrom der Reben” to La Traviata’s “Libiamo”, Otello’s “Innaffia l’ugola”, The Student Prince’s “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and all the rest.
If, as Opéra de Baugé’s programme reminds us, Fledermaus premièred in the same theatre as Beethoven’s Fidelio, it’s fair to say it takes a more lighthearted attitude to the question of wrongful imprisonment – whereas Beethoven was issuing a clarion call for a new future based on Enlightenment humanist values, Strauss’ natural audience were already pretty comfortable, thank you very much, and just wanted to be amused by a story featuring people not entirely unlike themselves. The programme also mentions Adolf Loos’s description of Vienna as “the Potemkin city”, the glittering excess enjoyed by a few disguising the poverty in which most people lived, and it’s perhaps not surprising that, less than a century after the French revolution, those living the high life didn’t want to think too hard about how long the situation was sustainable. Still, there’s something to be said for knowing what you’re good at, and it would after all be a tad surprising if the composer of The Beautiful Blue Danube waltz and The Pizzicato Polka had sat down to write an opera and come up with Wozzeck.
The story concerns a certain Eisenstein (and who better to live in a Potemkin city?). Like Bertie Wooster, he’s in trouble for tweaking the nose of authority and sentenced to five days in prison, increased to eight after the incompetent interventions of his lawyer Dr Blind. Enter not Jeeves but Dr Falke, an old friend with a score to settle. Falke tells him of a wonderful party happening that night, and suggests he can enjoy it without the old ball and chain in tow by telling her he’s off to start his prison sentence. However, unknown to Eisenstein, the scheming Falke has also invited said ball and chain, who comes in disguise, naturally, as do her maid Adèle and prison governor Frank, soon to be Eisenstein’s host. However, the confusion soon spirals beyond Falke’s control since Frank believes he’s already arrested Eisenstein, in fact an Italian tenor he caught dining with Eisenstein’s wife after he’d left who agreed to pretend to be Eisenstein to avoid a scandal... you get the idea.
Opéra de Baugé, performing the piece in the original language(s), obligingly provide surtitles in both French and English, though the piece flows by so fast (especially in the spoken sections) that the poor operator can scarcely keep up, and even when he/she can there’s often not enough time for the audience to read them. Speaking text is not a skill that always comes naturally to opera singers, used to having a score to tell them exactly what pitch and length to give every syllable, and it’s to the credit of James McOran Campbell – not, I would guess, a native German speaker – that he delivers his lines so naturally, performing the role of Eisenstein with a wonderful energy and intensity, though the role’s highest notes seemed a little uncomfortable for him. Plaudits too to Eun Woo Chul as a slick and entertaining Falke, Nicholas Merryweather as a dazed and confused Frank, and Remi Chiorboli as a hilariously vain Italian tenor.
However, vocal honours must undoubtedly go to the glorious voice of Carleen Ebbs as the scheming maid Adèle, and it’s to be hoped that she doesn’t sacrifice her voice’s purity and precision when asked to make herself heard over larger orchestras, as she surely will be. Almost as impressive was Phoebe Haines as Prince Orlovsky, the languidly bored Russian aristocrat only too pleased to fill in the time by joining in Falke’s scheme.
If I have a quibble with the direction, it’s that the crowd scenes at the party tended to be not just static but unnaturally so, with the chorus often just standing along the back wall watching something more important happen centre stage. Lord knows directing crowds can take up a disproportionate amount of time, and it’s generally not what the director’s most interested in at any given moment, but unfortunately it does have to be done if you want a realistic effect.
James Southall coaxed a light and energetic performance from the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Baugé. Special mention must go to whichever of the flautists was on the piccolo that night for her precision, and Enric Boixados ploughing a lonely furrow on the double bass – I think finding him a companion would not only brighten his evenings but also result in a better orchestral balance.
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