Music: Johann Strauss II
Libretto: Carl Haffner & Richard Genee
Director: John Copley
Conductor: James Southall
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
The ball is back in fashion and never went away. Or at least so it appears at Bristol Hippodrome where Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus is currently floating as light as meringue and as exquisite as syrup to be Welsh National Opera’s 2017 Autumn crowd-pleaser. Operetta has specific demands- keep it moving, keep it tuneful, keep it pretty, keep the laughs coming – get it right its a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Fail on any of these things, and each minute ticks by in treacly slo-mo. This 2011 production, directed by John Copley and revived here by Sarah Crisp, crosses confidently through each box and is ravishing to both the ear and eye. It’s exactly what a company like WNO need, a hit of one of the standards that can be brought out of the box once every few years and enchant and bewitch old and new alike. For any opera novice looking for a way in, there are very few better places to start.
Its plot could come from any 19th Century farce by Feydeau or Labiche and is more complicated to describe in synopsis than it plays on the stage. In its simplest form, three members of a household – Lord, Lady, and Maid – all converge on a party that none should be at, thrown by Russian Prince Orlosfsky. Each takes on disguises, each has something to hide. Chuck in an Italian tenor mistaken for the Lord and escorted off to prison and the establishment governor who also takes the night off to attend the ball and all the elements are in place for the usual farcical tropes of entanglement and mistaken identity. It could easily get sticky quite quickly. Yet Copley keeps it moving with all the fleet-footedness of a General preparing for one last victory charge.
Its perky energy is captured by a cast that looks to be having their own private ball. This relates especially to Rhian Lois, who as the maid, enters trilling in lyric soprano with a glint behind the eye that suggests a woman used to finding herself in mischief and not opposed to using her feminine wiles to achieve social advancement. Lois feels a star here, her vocals floating through the auditorium at the Hippodrome and her acting, whether dropping double entendre or witheringly putting down her companion suggest a performer who could as easily transition to the play versions.
If Lois is the stand-out she doesn’t have all the fun. Mark Stone is powerful of voice and a stallion of stance as the Master who goes to the ball looking for ‘peach and cream’ while Paul Charles Clarke has great fun as tenor Alfred, belting out large parts of the tenor repertoire as well as a few that Strauss wouldn’t have added from a certain Marmite television commercial. This pantomime element extends to actor Steve Speirs as the gaoler whose stand up stance could be considered too broad and modern, but was well received by the majority. It is only Judith Howarth as the Lady who disappoints, her performance never really revving up the work around her.
Deirdre Clancy’s costumes are almost as striking as the music emanating from the pit where James Southall is conducting the score from memory. It sums up what is an impressive enterprise across the board, opera as mainstream entertainment, all tied up in a glossy bow and ready to be unwrapped on a delighted audience.
Runs until 18 November | Image: Bill Cooper