Review: Die Fledermaus (Opera Holland Park)
OHP serves up an irresistible, fabulously cast production of the operetta by Johann Strauss II
If, like me, you struggle to enjoy the annual Viennese waltzathon at New Year, it's unlikely that Die Fledermaus sits high on your must-see list. And if flashbacks to Christopher Alden's ENO production still haunt your nights, you're probably not rushing to Opera Holland Park. But do think again. That one was a travesty; this, cross-dressing and all, is a sugar-sweet dragée with a dream at its heart. She's called Jennifer France.
"When you see me play," sings cheeky Adele, " You will surely say ‘now there's a girl who will go far'". Well, I did, and I do. France is a coloratura soprano whose performance as Johann Strauss's go-getting chambermaid made this grown man cry. Moved by her vocal radiance, elated by her comic gifts and outraged at her neglect by major houses (yes, that old chestnut), I wanted to frogmarch her onto the world's stages and force them to take notice.
In a rare foray into English-language performance, OHP is using Alistair Beaton's witty if rhyming-dictionary-dependent translation. This allows France to give her best Gracie Fields impression in a production that relocates the 19th-century Viennese operetta to an Art Deco England of stuffed shirts and flapper girls. With its attendant stench of class hypocrisy it's an inspired way of breathing new life into a warhorse, and director Martin Lloyd-Evans exploits it fearlessly.
A knockabout opening scene makes the most of a nifty set by takis (exquisitely lit, as is the entire show, by Howard Hudson) in which, unbeknownst to each other, Mr and Mrs Eisenstein (real-life married couple Ben Johnson and Susanna Hurrell) plan a spot of his-and-hers philandering. In act two, when not only they but Adele and Herr E's supposed friend Dr Falke (Gavan Ring) all turn up at the same ball, farce ensues, followed by a pants-down orgy and a night in the cells.
'The cast could hardly be bettered.'
It's a blissful evening. Too vulgar? For some, maybe, but sooner that than Alden's ghastly pretensions. John Rigby conducts the fizzing City of London Sinfonia with pizzazz, and the 2016 vintage OHP Chorus pops its cork with rousing élan. As for the cast, it could hardly be bettered. Not only does everyone sing with expressive attack, the comic timing is West-End perfect. Johnson and Hurrell do stellar work with rich support from Peter Davoren as the Italian seducer Alfredo, Samantha Price as a dragged-up Prince Orlofsky and Rang as the titular bat-man.
Even Ian Jervis as Frosch, the non-singing prison guard, brings welcome levity to Strauss's dud of a final act with some topical gags about his collection of political detainees. ("Prisoner Corbyn is free to go, but he just wants to stay.") As he says of the Blue Danube waltz, "I love a bit of G&S".
Perhaps the evening's most unexpected joy is a fan dance that spices up the ball scene. Mesmerisingly well performed by Didi Derrière to some interpolated ballet music from Strauss's Indigo and the Forty Thieves, it's erotic, graceful and quietly hilarious. True Burlesque, in fact.
So where's the fifth star? Alas, it fell to earth in the western canyons of Holland Park's vast stage. For if you want to enjoy this Fledermaus to the full, be careful where you sit. The whole of act one is set left of centre stage, as are the fan dance in act two and most of the key moments in act three. It's puzzling that a director as experienced as Lloyd-Evans has let this happen, but we have what we have. Unless you have a taste for tumbleweed make sure your seat number is 20 or above.
Die Fledermaus runs in repertory at Opera Holland Park until 5 August.