Taking risks in order to find a new perspective or truth is one thing. Taking risks simply for the sake of takings risks is another. Ellen Kent’s production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus at Oxford’s New Theatre, originally performed in 2006, and now on tour throughout the country, is unfortunately the latter. Ruth and Thomas Martin translated the original German libretto by Karl Heffner and Richard Genée into English, also working from a Soviet-Era Russian translation of the German original. Despite retaining the original plot and being nominally set in Vienna in 1800, it included tangential and jarring references to the present day, as well as incorporating spoken dialogue by Olga Gusan, adapted by Ellen Kent.
Though not a purist, and therefore inclined to dislike the English translation on principle, I found the translation problematic. The sounds of the words of a libretto and their relationship to the music may not seem to be an obviously crucial aspect of the operatic art form, but they are nevertheless of fundamental importance. The music can enhance the harshness of consonants, for example, giving the singer more to work with in order to establish both character and emotion, contributing greatly to the overall auditory effects of the piece. Every language has a different relationship both with sound and rhythm. When a libretto is translated, this is often lost or watered down, and this was sadly the case here. The translation made not only for awkward English, but also required the adding or removal of syllables. Arias were therefore changed structurally, without contributing anything that made the translation noteworthy.
This resulted in issues of pacing, with transitions between the spoken and sung not always working smoothly, compounded by issues with the surtitling, meaning that the sole aria lifted from the Soviet production, and sung by Orlovsky (Liza Kadelnik) in Russian, was rendered utterly incomprehensible. Acts II and III especially suffered from this lack of pace, deflating both the humour of the operetta as a whole and forcing the cast to Victorian melodramatic displays of energy. Obviously intending to be opera’s answer to the English 18th and 19th century comedy of manners plays, Kent’s Die Fledermaus missed the mark. Combined with what can only be termed meta-opera, Kent’s production was certainly bold. The liberal use of meta-textuality was utterly devoid of any sort of restraint or subtlety. References to Abramovich and David Cameron made for the most awkward, even patronising, method of ‘modernising’ an opera I’ve ever come across. However, there were some redeeming comedic gems – with Ruslan Pacatovici’s Alfred garnering the only true laughs of the night when wooing Rosalinde (Alyona Kistenyova) by singing Nessun Dorma mid-way through Act I, and then again in Act III when singing the Hebrew Chorus from Nabucco.
It suffered, too, in parts, from a lack of clarity of diction and projection, marring otherwise perfectly competent singing from the cast as they played out a ridiculous story of orchestrated mistaken identities, and predicaments of outlandish awkwardness. But considering the particular challenge of Fledermaus that is singing opera whilst dancing the steps of the Viennese waltz (retained here, despite the references to David Cameron) for two and a half hours, the cast as a whole acquitted themselves well, performing with deceptive ease. Kistenyova’s Rosalinde was particularly impressive in this respect, and Marina Tonina imbued her Adele with an extreme lack of co-ordination to great comic and realistic effect. Also worthy of mention was Liza Kadelnik’s valiant cross-dressing portrayal of Prince Orlovsky. Act III’s ‘Your jury is Eisenstein’, sung by Iurii Hoyaniuk (Dr Blind), Ruslan Pacatovici (Alfred) and Alyona Kistenyova (Rosalinde) provided a rare and much needed instance of top-notch singing.
The true star of this performance was Strauss’s sublime music, performed by the combined forces of the Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre and the National Philharmonic of Moldova, conducted with restraint and elegance. From the first few bars of the overture, Strauss’s music swept me into another world, confirming, if confirmation was ever needed, Die Fledermaus’s deserved and revered position in the operatic canon. Overall, however, Kent’s unfortunate artistic decision to flog the horse of meta-opera beyond death rendered the production rather disappointing.
Ellen Kent opera continue to tour the UK; for future dates, please visit their website.