If you reckoned Viennese Waltz King Johann Strauss's beloved operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’ was all effervescent champagne fun, then director Christopher Alden appears determined to make you think again. His new ENO production positively bristles with spiky ideas designed to puncture the work’s apparent ebullience. Updating the action from the pre-Freudian 1870s to the licentious 1920s, he seems to relish the opportunity to expose the hysteria latent beneath the operetta’s giddy surface.
The overture finds Julia Sporsén's Rosalinde tossing and turning in bed, fending off the nightmare bats projected over the walls of her boudoir. Richard Burkhard's Dr Falke, the aggrieved friend (and titular ‘Bat’) whose scheming drives the plot, wears a giant batwing cape designed to make him look like a vampire, and uses hypnotism to bend the other characters to his will. Jennifer Holloway’s Orlofsky, the millionaire Russian prince whose party Falke ensures everyone attends in Act II, is even more pathologically bored than usual. And to make sure we grasp the notion that this pleasure-seeking society is going to wake up with a terrifying hangover, Alden turns Frosch (Jan Pohl), the jailer presiding over Act III, into a blackshirt-and-jackboot-wearing fascist. Meanwhile, to underline the point that time is running out, a giant version of the pocket watch that Tom Randle's philandering Eisenstein uses as a tool of seduction, permanently looms over the action.
In themselves, Alden’s ideas are stimulating, but they don’t translate into stimulating drama. Exposing the neuroses lurking behind the operetta’s gaiety is one thing; stripping it of liveliness is quite another. Dwarfed by Allen Moyer’s set, the ENO chorus make a rather joyless lot of partygoers and the principals seem lacking in spirit, too.
There are some positives, though – Edgaras Montvidas’s caddish, would-be seducer Alfred raises the odd smile; Rhian Lois reels off some sparkling coloratura as Adele, the Eisensteins’ maid; and conductor Eun Sun Kim, making her ENO debut, does her best to keep things fizzing in the orchestra pit. But it isn't enough to lift the evening. And, as anyone will tell you, nothing is quite so depressing as flat champagne. Jason Best