Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Divine Comedy

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Divine Comedy

Article excerpt

Die Fledermaus ENO, in rep until 6 November Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus (but if it's given in English, why not The Bat? Does that somehow sound too unglamorous? ) is not only the greatest operetta ever composed, as everyone agrees, but also, in my view, a great work, to be ranked with the finest comedies in any genre. That is, beneath its featherbrained hedonism there is a core of seriousness, conveyed as usual by Strauss in glittering music that never lets you forget that all good things come to an end, usually sooner than you expect.

But that is only part of its claim to an exalted status that the term 'operetta' seems to deny. As in many great comedies, several of the characters spend much of the time in disguise, and sing some of their most telling music when they are pretending to be someone else. The climax of that is Rosalinde's Czardas, a plangent piece that expresses as well as anything nostalgia for a homeland which in her case she has probably never even visited, before going off giddily into cascades of coloratura.

As in Cosi fan tutte, a far greater work of course but one that develops along similar lines, the characters lose their sense of identity and become unsure which are their genuine feelings and which their fake ones.

Who would ever guess that Ferrando, in the climactic duet with Fiordiligi in Act II of Mozart's masterpiece, is only pretending to be in love with her? - or is that all? I suspect that everyone, even the greatest artist, gets to a point where their bewilderment about the nature of emotion, the possibility of making sure which are one's sincerest feelings and which are subtly spurious, overwhelms them and they resort to a brusque gesture of dismissal of the whole issue: the lovers at the end of Cosi laughably resolve to rule their lives henceforth by Reason, as if they or anyone could; while the whole bunch of disguised deceivers in Die Fledermaus blame all their misdemeanours on champagne.

Can there be a production of Fledermaus which copes with these matters without being impossibly heavy-handed? It's hard to say; all I can state is that I have never seen an even remotely satisfactory production, one which does justice to the score's intoxicating playfulness and at the same time hints, but not too heavily, at what that conceals.

Certainly the new production at ENO by Christopher Alden doesn't get close. He has, naturally, his own agenda of subtexts galore, but they remain obscure and often just collide with the music, to which he seems not to have listened. …

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