Fulham Opera, noted in recent years for their serious and compelling Wagner and Verdi output, are also not shy of comedy (as demonstrated by their very successful Falstaff). Die Fledermaus is a revenge comedy in the lighter tradition of operetta, and Fulham Opera’s take on Strauss is characteristically skilful, immediate, and musically polished, with minimal scenery and fabulous singing. Director Peter Relton (also appearing on stage as the passion-fuelled Italian tenor, Alfred) has created a genuinely funny Fledermaus which touches tantalisingly on the darker sides of the piece, while keeping the humour fast and furious throughout. And it’s not just about any bat, any more – in this production, Fledermaus is Batman, and several of his villainous foes also appear.
Performance is almost in the round, with the audience distributed on three sides of a square central playing space, and the petite Orchestra of Fulham Opera (conducted by Tom Newall) raised on the sanctuary at the back. This positioning allows the orchestra to exploit the lovely natural acoustics of St John’s Church, and occasionally the instruments can dominate the singers, but generally balance is good. Peter Relton’s dynamic direction keeps his singers on the move, which means you might lose a word if they turn away from you; but our consistent closeness to the action amply repays this risk, producing a crisp, fresh Fledermaus whose plot, jokes and punchlines are all ultimately crystal clear. The mixture of spoken dialogue with singing always presents a challenge for opera singers and audiences alike, but this production soon settles into an engaging rhythm, each transition assisted by a warm, witty libretto from Liza Graham. Graham’s clever take on David Pountney’s translation sprinkles in Batman references alongside cultural nods to Swinging Sixties: the Vietnam War, the Summer of Love and acid-fuelled adventures on the cosmic superhighway all feature, and the hedonistic, humourous nature of Fledermaus flourishes all the more strongly for it.
As the overture begins, we see Eisenstein settling into an armchair with a whisky to enjoy a silent film (complete with captions) of his original prank on Falke, inveigling him to a party, getting him uproariously drunk, and finally depositing Falke to wake up, abandoned, on a bench in St John’s churchyard, in a Batman costume (or the remains of one). Admirably fitted to the overture, the video (designed by Laurence Relton) brilliantly conveys the opera’s all-important back story, and directly connects it to the ensuing action: Batman becomes an obsession with Falke as he plans his revenge on the unsuspecting Eisenstein.
As ever at Fulham Opera, the near-stark simplicity of the staging (skilled video work aside) gives their luxury casting even greater impact. In terms of musicality, there are no budget options here: the universally strong cast allow us an exceptional chance to admire their fine voices at breathtakingly close quarters, producing a truly memorable experience larger opera houses cannot hope to achieve. But this production, more than ever before, gives us treats and surprises all the way through: ironic inclusions of Verdi and Wagner scraps provide musical games and in-jokes which keep laughter rippling through the audience, while each night includes a secret guest to sing at Orlovsky’s party: on Tuesday we were treated to a few minutes of Mime’s first scene in Siegfried, sung by no other than Graham Clark, veteran of 16 Bayreuth seasons, to piano accompaniment from Andrew Robinson. The fact this production can hold a miniature Wagner masterclass from an astonishing tenor like Clark at its centre without faltering, or falling over, is testament to its overall quality.
Our two leading sopranos each feel superbly suited to this score, and to the space. Alinka Kozari’s glorious Rosalinde finds full expression in her disguise as the Hungarian Countess Kitka, an ideal showcase for Kozari’s talented stagecraft, as well as her exultantly beautiful, soaring soprano. Luci Briginshaw’s natural, appealing Adele regularly brings energy and joy to the stage, sung with thrilling fullness (and delightful petulance where appropriate).
Peter Kent’s ever-optimistic Alfred is so unendingly endearing that Rosalinde really does seem churlish to refuse him, sounding very much at home in sobbing Italian arias as he pleads for her love, and even doing a quick Fidelio once unfairly incarcerated in Frank’s prison. Peter Brooke’s sensitive and focused Falke, richly sung and admirably clear, impresses with his intelligence and determination on his journey of revenge. Mae Heydorn cuts a Dionysian figure as a cross-dressing Prince Orlovsky, complete with beard and high heels, long red tresses crowned with ivy, accompanied by four dancing Bacchants. Heydorn’s sultry, lingering mezzo, complete with a sharply observed comic Russian accent, makes the free-spirited, ennui-ridden Prince both believable and lovable. Jonathan Finney’s louche, mischievous Eisenstein hits most of the right buttons, superbly imagined in terms of costume and body language; Finney’s tenor is always pleasing and usually clear, though occasionally he could be slicker with delivery and timing.
The smaller roles are all strong, with a chimerical performance from Matthew Duncan as prison director Frank, a well-meaning public servant with a secret wilder, camp side. Jeremy Vinogradov makes a heartwarmingly frustrated lawyer Blind, using impeccable mannerisms to evoke a much older man. Jennifer Begley charms as a melodious and sprightly Ida, while Janet Fischer excels in her purely spoken role as Frosch, the hippy jailor desperate to hug everyone in his “prison of love”, usually the wrong side of at least one chemical. The Fulham Opera Chorus and Dancers contribute warm harmonies and stage colour respectively.
Before the Christmas party season hits, Die Fledermaus is an exultant celebration of the highs – and lows – of champagne-fuelled nights. Get in while you can.