Biedermann and the Arsonists (Lilian Baylis Theatre)

An operatic retelling of Max Frisch’s black comedy struggles to find its purpose

Leigh Melrose as Schmitz in Biedermann and the Arsonists (Independent Opera)
Leigh Melrose as Schmitz in Biedermann and the Arsonists (Independent Opera)
© Robbie Jack
Once upon a time Max Frisch’s black comedy was all the rage. It reached our shores from his native Switzerland in the early sixties and seemed to spread like, well, wildfire, before sputtering out for several decades until the Royal Court revived it in 2007 with Will Keen and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Usually known in English as The Fire Raisers or The Arsonists, the play’s a satirical, semi-absurdist one-joke piece that thinks it’s more profound than it is. The story of an upright citizen who, during an outbreak of arson, cannot bring himself to eject a couple of ne’er-do-wells from his home even when they start loading fuel and detonators into his attic, is a cynical statement that evil will always triumph over decency because decency will stand by and let it happen. That’s a hard message to swallow in this of all weeks.

Thanks to Šimon Voseček, Biedermann and the Arsonists is now an opera, although it scarcely qualifies as one. The Austro-Czech composer has merely trimmed Frisch’s text down a little and added some illustrative music. Why did he bother? Any translation of an existing work into another art form needs to shed new light on it, but this is an unremarkable 90-minute retread. Moreover, Voseček’s music doesn’t drive the tale, it follows it. Quite often he gives up altogether and hands over the narrative to random lumps of spoken dialogue.

The estimable Independent Opera hasn’t stinted on the forces needed for this project, and power to their elbow for engaging the excellent Britten Sinfonia. Timothy Redmond conducts the Cambridge-based band in music that somehow favours clarinets and dark brass without ever sounding lugubrious. There’s a playfulness to the score, and it trips brightly through the opera’s faster episodes; however it provides little for the listener to hold on to.

'A lucky trio'

There’s a suspicion in this UK premiere that director Max Hoehn recognises he’s onto a loser, so he’s turned it into a cartoon. Bad choice. If the opera is to work at all there needs to be a sense of menace to the insinuating pair; instead, Leigh Melrose‘s Schmitz is a Terry Gilliam animation, his fake muscle-man torso topped by flashing eyes and a comedy moustache that dances above a wicked set of pearly-whites, while Matthew Hargreaves's straight-man Eisenring is just too nice. It goes without saying that both these seasoned professionals deliver consummate vocal performances; but there’s scant dramatic tension to be had in clowning.

Jemima Robinson‘s multi-level set is imaginative and colourful. As well as three rooms and a side alley there’s a toy fire engine in which three Fireman (Johnny Herford, Adam Sullivan and Bradley Travis) hunker down between contributions as Frisch’s Chorus. They’re a lucky trio: Voseček’s harmonised music for them is the most enjoyable thing in the score. By contrast tenor Mark Le Brocq as Biedermann has to negotiate some cruel tessitura and still create a complex, conflicted character. All credit to him that he manages it.

There are two first-rate sopranos: Alinka Kozári as an underwritten Frau Biedermann and Raphaela Papadakis, who gets the evening’s best moments of visual comedy in her reaction work as Anna, the maid. But not even they can save this misconceived account of a misbegotten opera.

There is a further performance of Biedermann and the Arsonists on 19 November.