Saturday, 23 July 2011

Die Fledermaus, Iris Theatre

In the great tradition of concerts held in St. Paul's Covent Garden, Iris Theatre's production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus had competition from street performers in the market. It's unlikely that the al fresco crowd were getting a show with more energy than that generated in this production of Strauss' farce though. In fact, it might be that there was too much energy in this high-calibre performance. Mel Cook's production is a slapstick-heavy affair, the knockabout comedy taking its lead from the vitality (not to mention champagne froth) of the celebrated central-Act party. With so much movement (complete with entrances that necessitated a sizeable walk up the church's aisles) characters were occasionally masked by shadow or had their voices scattered in the melee. Above all, the rather frenzied comic playing tended to transfer itself to the singers when they were actually singing. There really is plenty of comedy and chutzpah already written into the opera without having to generate extra physical comedy, entertaining though it was: to coin an appropriate metaphor, one has to hold the champagne glass still to get the full measure and effect of Strauss' sparkling wine.

Despite this I was impressed by a spirited, even classy evening's music-making. Comprising little more than two quartets (string & wind), the Orchestra Of St. Paul's under the direction of Ben Palmer filled out the chamber arrangement of the score with meticulous ensemble and an occasional flare of character. The combination of sinuous lead violin and woodwind brought an Austro-Hungarian flavour to the sound, like an accordion at the heart of a Czardas. Lugubrious woodwind at the end of the party conjured the decadence of Kurt Weill and the actual music of Stravinsky and Wagner also made cameo appearances. Accompanying ensembles are typically thrown together by necessity or afterthought in the West End, so it was a pleasure to hear a balanced, well-prepared group creating a sound platform for the singers.

In their turn the singers took full advantage of the opportunity. Not unlike Mozart's Il Nozze di Figaro, the focus of Die Fledermaus is on a young aristocratic couple blundering into confrontation and comeuppance. Andrew Dickinson's Eisenstein is at the centre of this, played, in updated dialogue, as a Sloane of contemporary, gap yah-vernacular. His was the exemplary performance under the circumstances: clear in speech and song despite the perpetual motion, never neglecting the audience. As his wife Rosalinda, Felicity Hayward sang with generous tone and sparkle whilst successfully negotiating the rough and tumble (but I felt slightly cheated that her thrilling high C at the end of the Act 1 ensemble was delivered directly at the conductor's feet!).

The showpiece party of the second Act revolved around Belinda Williams' Count Orlofsky. Playing him as a bored Russian playboy (setting the action firmly in contemporary Chelsea), Williams used a broody mix of pride and ennui, allowing her to move and sing without the mania of the over-excited guests; a highly charismatic performance. Henry Manning carved out plenty of room to showcase his manipulative Falke (complete with Nolan/Batman jokes in a nod to the opera's title). Sarah Gabriel, who had already won the audience in the first Act with a nicely pitched Eliza Doolittle of an Adele, delivered the Laughing Song in the second with an impressive lightness of touch. The third Act consolidated the strength of cast, Edward Lee (as Alfred) alternately showing off his clarion tenor and y-fronts, and Amy Payne and Leif Jone Olberg (Ida and the Prison Governor) modestly subordinating well-produced sound to the demands of functional character.

Someone had also spent more time than is usual for these events preparing costume and choreography. Clearly a great deal of preparation and attention had been spent on this production and it was well-invested.

No comments: