This genuinely unsettling production of Die Fledermaus presented a quite unexpected take on a piece that is often regarded as a guiltless piece of confection. I don't think I've ever seen a review of any production of this piece that doesn't contain the word "fizz"*; I can already see many London reviewers bemoaning the lack of it in this ENO production. But this production attempts a lot more than mere hedonism and is in its way far more unnerving than the recently opened Bieito Fidelio, also at ENO.
Director Christopher Alden maintains the Viennese setting of the original but attempts an updating of the piece to a non specific time - Act I might be Freud's Vienna (introspection, sexual obsession), the second act the roaring 20's meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show (freedom, transgression of boundaries, sexual frivolity), Act III reactionary subjugation of this libertine enjoyment (in fascist oppression, and an accompanying repression of sexuality into fetish).
Dr Falke, the Operetta's central manipulator, is here presented as a Freud figure, the others his patients. A huge pocket watch swings over the stage - a symbol of Eisenstein's infidelity, but also Dr Falke's mesmeric treatments for his patients and his hypnotic influence on all the events in the operetta. He tries to keep an objective distance, but he also dehumanises his patients - his bell ringing hypnotism is more redolent of Pavlov's experiments than the actions a compassionate therapist. His own insecurities are revealed in his humiliation of Eisenstein - we are meant to believe that his plans are all designed to make his patients confront their sexual excesses, but it is soon revealed that public ridicule is (perhaps strangely in this context) what Freud/Falke most fears and that at least part of his motive is simple revenge.
Rosalinde's neuroses offer the most clichéed picture of "Freud with patient", but this idea provides striking departures for other characters, most notably Prince Orlofsky, who here totally the lacks the swagger that he is often played with. Instead his boredom is taken as evidence of a profound depression and alienation - he has lost his sense of humour and libido, and initially can't even leave his bed. His aria "Chacun a son gout", with its unquestioning surrender to the vagaries of taste ("it's just my inclination") reflects the bleak thought of a soul that is directionless and dispassionate. A very interesting and wholly valid reinterpretation of this character. In the final act, Adele provides a sexual salvation and connection to the real world for him.
As to Rosalinde, the opera opens on the vast grey interior of her immaculate bedroom - she first dreams of her therapist, and we soon realise that she is fantasising also about sexual escape: her old flame Alfred steps out from behind her bed (in dashing "romantic" 16th century dress, redolent of Don Carlo and Il Trovatore) as if from her dream. Eisenstein's rapacious lawyer Dr Blind is a goulish abberation - scuttling around like a beetle, molesting Eisenstein, then crawling under the marital bed for his exit. When Eisenstein's infidelity is secured with the introduction of the party idea, the rift in the marriage is very literally depicted onstage as the bedroom splits in two, allowing garish colour and gender-bending revellers to pour in. Tellingly this rift is never repaired, even after the final reconciliation. Often Alden lifts the lid on the titillation and innuendo of this sex obsessed operetta and just lets happen on stage exactly what is being suggested by the words and music - the bed is the location of almost too many infidelities to count.
The action flags slightly towards the end of Act II, as the production's wide ranging ideas fail to cohere, and the surreal, abstracted take on the events of the party means it doesn't really ignite as a convincing piece of revelry. Act III comes as a shock. Frosch (the jailor) it turns out is a psychotic nazi like character, determined to put an end to the fun and transgression - he locks all the party guests in prison, and begins burning their transvestite garments. Actor Jan Pohl is genuinely very scary in the role, dominating the stage and putting the often exaggerated comic acting of the others into stark relief.
As its adherents well know, opera as an art form is obsessed with sex and death. In operetta the almost exclusive focus on the former can seem like a frantic escape from the latter, but here Alden grants levity a more serious purpose than escapism. The production ends in dreamy escape, the comedy of which feels a welcome relief and relaxation, though the bitter taste of what we have witnessed remains. After the brutality and terrifying capriciousness of the fascist prison, Rosalinde's and Eisenstein's laughing acceptance of each other's infidelities and human imperfections seems not just the humane thing to do, but obligatory for survival. In light of fascism, infidelity is as nothing - the threat of the latter is rendered meaningless by the horror of the former.
Musically this production is consistently good, without ever being truly exceptional. Julia Sporsén's voice is fundamentally a very luscious full lyric instrument, and her care for line is admirable, but the extensive coloratura demands of the role of Rosalinde are rarely convincingly in place. Rhian Lois' Adele has no troubles in this regard, navigating the music as she does with such ease, but her characterisation relies a little too much on cliché to be as funny as she needs to be. Jennifer Holloway's Orlofsky is fascinating and commanding, and the physical illusion of masculinity is complete. She is an excellent singer also - if she can develop the chest tones that give the female voice an appealingly masculine edge, she will be perfect in that role. Tom Randle sometimes sounded a little stressed vocally as Eisenstein, but generally manages the part fine. Richard Burkhard's conversational style as Dr. Falke seems appropriate and certainly makes him easy to understand. More specificity in his acting might have been welcome as he is such a linchpin of this production, though he still manages to charm.
Eun Sun Kim makes her ENO début in the pit, and was immediately impressive with her sprightly, energetic conducting in the overture, inspiring the ENO orchestra to produce excellent playing throughout the evening. Her beat is precise and clear, and has an easy flexibility which meant that this deceptively challenging to conduct music never felt laboured and nor were there ensemble problems. Slightly lacking was a sense of variety which might have allowed the climaxes to thrill more, but this was a very promising début.
This is well worth seeing. It's an ambitious staging, and as such doesn't always cohere ideally or avoid moments of clumsiness, but it's a thoughtful piece of regie and certainly provides insights into the darker undertones of this "fizzing" operetta.
*why do people love this pun so much? I do realise that by commenting on it, this review now also has the word fizz in it. Never mind - next time I see this piece, I will endeavour not to include it.