Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Sparkle and discipline: Die Fledermaus at Opera Holland Park

Didi Derriere & chorus - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Didi Derriere & ensemble - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus; Ben Johnson, Susannah Hurrell, Jennifer France, Samantha Price, Gavan Ring, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Rigby; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Engaging account of the operetta classic, with a husband & wife team as the Eisensteins

Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Holland Park moved to Vienna on 19 July 2016 for Opera Holland Park's new production of Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed, and John Rigby conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Ben Johnson as Eisenstein, Susanna Hurrell as Rosalind, Jennifer France as Adele, Gavan Ring as Dr Falke, Samantha Price as Prince Orlofsky, Peter Davoren as Alfred, Robert Burt as Dr Blind, John Lofthouse as Frank, Joanna Marie Skillett as Ida and Ian Jervis as Frosch. Designs were by takis, with lighting by Howard Hudson, and choreography by Adam Scown.

The British do not always have a good track record with operetta, and the style of productions can too often veer towards sit-com with music or Gilbert & Sullivan. And the stage at Opera Holland Park, with its wide open spaces, is not ideal for the intimacy which the form implies. But the new production managed to combine imagination and discipline with the requisite style to both charm and engage us, giving us Johann Strauss's froth with a little bit of edge underneath.

Things got off to a superb start with John Rigby's account of the overture. Rigby is a conductor whose credits include substantial experience in West End musical theatre, he encouraged the orchestra to perform with a sense of crisp rhythmic discipline which formed a vivid underpinning of Strauss's lovely melodies. Whilst these were given with the requisite flexibility, I enjoyed the way Rigby brought out the underlying structure. This crisply stylish and engaging performance set just the right tone for the whole operetta.

Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell
Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Lloyd-Evans and takis solved the problem of the Opera Holland Park stage by not using it all in Act One. takis's elegant Art Deco set of the Eisenstein's apartment (bedroom and bathroom), with its series of elegant glass and metal screens, filled the centre and stage left, with stage right being unused. Not ideal, as for those of us in the left side of the theatre the action never came really close, but it meant that the acting space was nicely tight. And takis sets were a joy, the combination of Art Deco against the Jacobean house evoking distant memories of Eltham Palace with its combination of Art Deco and historical.

The operetta was performed in Alistair Beaton's English translation which gave the work a nicely appealing immediacy without seeming too far removed from the original. Though the dialogue came over well the diction in the sung passages was a bit more variable so we did rather need the surtitles at times. Lloyd-Evans' emphasised the work's class hierarchy and character differences by using accents. Both Ben Johnson's Eisenstein and Susannah Hurrell's Rosalinde were cut-glass English, whilst Gavan Ring as Falke used his native Irish accent, and Jennifer France's Adele was distinctly Northern work class. I was surprised at how well the dialogue worked in this theatre, and many of the cast proved to have great comic timing.

The production was also very physical (and very funny) with Adam Scown's choreography flowing through the whole work without it ever seeming to be a dance extravaganza.
Jennifer France - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Jennifer France - Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
The hard working chorus had a great deal to do, of course, in Act Two and did so brilliantly. Here the production really did fill the stage with a glorious feeling of joyous movement. For the ballet sequence at the ball (rarely given with the music Strauss actually wrote for it), we had the burlesque dancer Didi Derriere giving us a supremely crafted and wonderfully elegant fan dance.

One of the attractions of the production was that the Eisensteins were being sung by husband and wife team Susannah Hurrell and Ben Johnson (thus returning the role of Eisenstein to the tenor voice for which it was originally written). Johnson was a wonderfully charming Eisenstein, and Hurrell displayed a superb sense of comic timing. But husband and wife teams do not necessarily make good double acts on stage, thankfully here Hurrell and Johnson really made Act One fizz. This act is very much a French farce (the operetta is based on a French vaudeville) with music, and all concerned kept it nice and pacey without it seeming driven.

But though there are great solo moments, the operetta is very much an ensemble piece. Strauss writes lots of duets, trios and ensembles and the action requires strong sense of ensemble. The cast all brought this together, and we were presented with a complex machine finely tuned without ever being too aware of the mechanism. Like the music of the overture, this was all lightness with discipline underneath. The second act, involving the chorus and all the principals, is a complex piece of theatre and here we had a sense of brilliantly tight ensemble as well as those joyous melodies, and both the chorus and principals brought out the sense of the fun filling the Opera Holland Park stage.

But there are, of course, solos. Susannah Hurrell gave a lovely account of the Csardas in Act Two, bringing just the right amount of cod-exoticism to it (helped by a stunning costume). Jennifer France managed the difficult task of really nailing the coloratura in her solos, notably in the Laughing Song, whilst keeping the music in character; for once the music felt all of a piece with the drama. Samantha Price made a charming Orlofsky, here a woman really masquerading as a man; all part of Falke's carefully orchestrated plan.

Gavin Ring's Falke was a superb ensemble player, singing and acting with great charm and a twinkle in his eye, though I would have liked a little more sense of menace, the feeling that he really was the eminence grise. Peter Davoren managed to make the annoying character of the Italian tenor Alfred be delightfully charming, and Davoren played the whole role in an impenetrable Italian accent which was quite a feat. He and Johnson have very different styles of tenor voice, which brought a nice timbral variety to the evening.

Joanna Marie Skillett charmed as Ida, giving her a strong sense of personality whilst John Lofthouse's Frank was as physically inept as he was at his job as governor of the jail. Robert Burt brought a lovely pompousness to Dr Blind. Ian Jervis as a down at heel Frosch made his Act Three monologue into a genuinely funny moment skewering all variety of politicians, and unlike some performances he never outstayed his welcome.

Ben Johnson & ensemble - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Ben Johnson & ensemble - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
The final act of the opera can sometimes seem a bit of a let-down after the well co-ordinated hi-jinks of the first two acts. Here Lloyd-Evans kept a firm hand on the plot, this was a prison and we were aware of the revenge motif underlying the piece, so that the whole opera did have some point and wasn't just froth.

The chorus were on fine form, singing, dancing and having a whale of a time (largely in their underwear), whilst John Rigby and the orchestra ensured that the whole operetta was up to the level of the overture.

This was a production with a refreshing lack of an axe to grind, and a sense of the combination of sparkle and discipline needed to perform this piece. All concerned demonstrated that operetta really can work in the Opera Holland Park theatre, and I do hope we have further essays in the genre. We don't hear anything like enough operetta in London.

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