Adele (the splendid Natasha Agarwal) dances to centre stage at the ball. Pictures: Peter Marsh
Warwick Arts Centre
One has huge admiration for Opera Warwick. This student company, relying on a first-rate organisation, inspired and energised musical leadership - whether from undergraduates or their seniors - a sequence of imaginative stagings and a series of gifted technicians overseeing costumes, lighting, sound and set building, yet with no university music faculty, it has without doubt the ability, at best, to match the efforts of the music colleges in London, Glasgow and Manchester.
I have relished its productions of Rossini (La Cenerentola), Mozart (Don Giovanni, Figaro), and most impressively Monteverdi (a staggeringly sensitively done L’Incoronazione di Poppea), all of which have impressed by the quality of their production values - in every department - and a wily, canny good sense that constantly and pretty much consistently hit the jackpot.
Now Warwick have turned their prodigious skills, gift of eloquent delivery and wicked sense of humour to Strauss’s most famous operetta Die Fledermaus (1874), which – as the Director’s note observes – drew its humour not just from the stage play or vaudeville Le Réveillon by Meilhac and Halévy, staged in Vienna two years earlier, but via them to the 1850s play Das Gefängnis (The Prison) by the still performed playwright Julius Benedix. (1811-73).
The fast-moving wit and humour of its libretto and the sheer quality and flair of the score made Die Fledermaus the very apogee of Viennese operetta, as it still is to that day, despite the massive contributions of Lehár (whose Merry Widow Opera Warwick staged a couple of winter seasons ago), and obvious talents of Kálmán, Fall and numerous others.
Fledermaus requires a slickness, a rhythmic vitality and alacrity of pace, and an overall brilliance and sparkle to carry off its often bruisingly challenging, rip-roaring music. And this Josh Dixon’s production – he also made a canny new translation of the libretto which worked wondrously well – in many, if not all, respects managed to carry it off with fizz and aplomb.
Natasha Agarwal as Adele and Ellie Popham as Rosalinda
in Act 1
Natasha Agarwal as Adele and Ellie Popham as Rosalinda in Act 1
At times one looked for some more specific detail and precise touches – for instance, he set it in the ‘Thatcher era’ but there was precious little, just the odd quip, to define and capture anything of that specific period. Some of the acting seemed left to the performers’ own devices, other passages were really nicely mapped out. Fledermaus turned out perhaps a curate’s egg, but the good points outdid any drawbacks as much as an ostrich’s egg outweighs a domestic hen’s. There was a lot worth praising.
One of the crucial things was the superb coordination between stage and pit. Paul McGrath, who conducted (usually hitherto undergraduates have taken the helm, something which should be retained), is the university’s Director of Music, and has a significant CV working with the national companies in London and also abroad. To say he was a vast asset would be an understatement. His ability to command singer and orchestra, each in impeccable detail, and at the same time, would have served a production well at Opera North or indeed at ENO, where he previously worked. His rapport with his players – from where I was one saw it especially with the violins, but you could see that it energised the (magnificent) woodwind and brought fine effects from brass (including an important tuba), tuned percussion and everybody else clustered around him. The playing, to my mind, was of the very first order, fizzing and whizzing, and that applied from the first note of the wondrously played overture to the end of the show. Quite some achievement.
My spirits rose when I saw that final year student Natasha Agarwal had been cast as Adele. Her Susanna in Figaro had been a triumph, vocally as much as dramatically (just as her colleague in Warwick’s Carmen, Ellie Popham – the pair sang Frasquita and Mercédès - had shone as the Countess). In fact, with her brilliantly soaring coloratura (prefaced by two solo clarinets and supported by a very characterful and enhancing flute), her glorious, secure tone on high as well as low notes, her arresting stage presence and wonderful, infectious personality, she made Adele an explosive triumph at every turn.
Rosalinda as the 'Hungarian Countess' (Ellie Popham),
Prince Orlovsky (Ellie Sterland) and Falke (Cole McLaren-Bailey)
Rosalinda as the 'Hungarian Countess' (Ellie Popham), Prince Orlovsky (Ellie Sterland) and Falke (Cole McLaren-Bailey)
Meanwhile Ellie Popham showed a nice, wry wit that helped enliven an already bizarrely funny Act I (bizarre exchanges with Adele who is claiming an ill aunt), and when it came to her set piece as the ‘Hungarian countess’ who discredits errant husband Eisenstein at the palace ball, she really turned it on. The tone of her sound in Strauss’ parody of a csárdás gained a spectacular warmth, that beamed out amid the almost surreal spotlighting (James Fitzpatrick) which picked her out so movingly as she held the ball guests spellbound. Popham, always abetted by conductor McGrath, also lent character to the set piece ensembles – her lulling Act 1 duet with Alfred, for instance, and the extended Act 3 trio with Eisenstein and Alfred; plus between those, the combative duet with Eisenstein at the ball.
Indeed it was Florian Panzieri’s Alfred who proved perhaps the vocal highlight of this endlessly cheeky and cheerful evening. Panzieri has made the transition, literally just now, from baritone to tenor. What a great decision. His tenor is a scrumptious sound, winningly secure in higher tessitura (what a singing teacher he would really make) and profoundly warm in quality. Alfred’s role is a somewhat curtailed one – one would have relished more of him from Strauss and his librettists Haffner and Genée – but both in his cavorting with Rosalinda (cue sundry well-known arias) and in his insistent singing from his prison cell (cue more ‘classical pops’), he showed what a truly fulfilling voice he has developed. His stage character, like certain others’, lacked something in invention and definition, but his humorous tolerance of his unlikely plight rendered the character all the more attractive and entertaining.
Ross Kelly is a first year Business and French student, and Eisenstein is quite a tall order for a newcomer to undertake. That he carried it off with such panache was a huge credit to him. The negative element was that one felt many of his solo moves were more or less self-directed. The deportment – well, some of it - was somewhere between a first year student and a school sixth former. To my mind, director Josh Dixon – himself a second year – needed to work out certain moves and gestures more specifically with his principals.
Frank (Michael Green) engages with his prisoner Alfred (Florian Panzieri)
There was just occasionally a tangible shortage of detail. But Kelly is an attractive performer: his Eisenstein was pleasantly and tangibly full of joie-de-vivre, and a lot of the paciness and raciness of the evening was occasioned by him, right from the very opening, in the extremely funny stage business he and Falke contributed to the overture. The voice is a pleasing one, not there yet but hopefully well on the way; he hurls himself around the stage like a hyperactive frisbee, and if this was occasionally just overdone it was equally often well devised and ably rehearsed.
Cole McLaren-Bailey’s Falke was a sophisticated cove, very ready to join in or initiate the mischief, tolerant of Eisenstein’s antics (here) like an amiable Latin teacher, and at his best, very funny, and moreover – even in a joint invasion of the audience - subtly so. His star turn comes at the end when he appears in a pretty spectacular, bearish bat costume, thus reviving the joke that his friend played on him some time earlier. But there is an appealing and nicely supported voice there, which bodes well. It’s he who introduces the sequence of comments about material wealth (‘My friend, you’re forgetting one thing – we’re rich’) which will resurface in the ball scene (‘those people over there – they’re poor’), and which perhaps classes as one of the libretto’s ‘Thatcher era’ jests.
Falke’s famous aria, ‘Friends of mine’, a sort of slow waltz beautifully and sensitively paced by McGrath and his players, was enchanting. The new translation, which director Josh Dixon made abetted, presumably, by an initial version from the German by Eve Miller, served the opera well at every stage: and you could hear everything, certainly with the modest-level miking at the sides and rear, but often direct from the singers themselves centre stage
The impossible Frosch (Mike Lyle) and the
long-suffering Frank (Michael Green)
The impossible Frosch (Mike Lyle) and the long-suffering Frank (Michael Green)
Another of the super characters in this production was the Prince Orlofsky, Ellie Sterland, a splendidly august and stylish performer: Orlovsky’s arias are, like Rosalinda’s Hungarian countess, the real highlights of the central Act, and one was not left wanting. They were sung with tremendous spirit, as well as authority and wit, and paired with McGrath’s orchestra emerged highly polished. Her moves, with or without a hefty sword (one of the nicer props; the costumes – Emma Ann Hall, Anne Peo shone best in this Act), were splendid calculated, very much Viennese (or Berlin or Budapest) hussar, and all one wanted – in one of the set pieces – was perhaps a little more volume; yet they had plenty of punch, a super tone with a tangible depth to it, and recalled (in two cases) the impudent piece of yodelling that Johann Strauss has, tongue in cheek, imported.
For the ball scene, Die Fledermaus depends on a vital and energetic chorus, displaying a fair amount of imagination. Despite the odd deliberately static moment, for the most part this choir showed itself imaginative in moves - and the very opposite of the humdrum choruses one sometimes encounters. Some of the toing and froing was, one would guess, mapped out as part of the direction, but the finer detail will have depended on the performers themselves, including the supportive Ida, Adele’s sister (third year biomedic Charlotte Senior, Opera Warwick’s active President). The use of lateral moves – one or two players shifting laterally from one side of the stage to the other – was especially effective. The choir sang well as a whole, and as unified whole too, which heightened the quality and impact. There were no ragged ends. An attempt was made by the set designer (Tommy Harvey, with Mahlia Theismann) to create a feeling of splendour, mainly thanks to a basic but effective staircase. But the bare walls and lack of any sense of luxury only confirmed one’s feeling that the set was unduly sparse; and accordingly, its contribution to the show was limited.
Act 3 got off with as much of a bang as Act 1: this was thanks to Mike Lyle’s Frosch. A senior member of the company, featuring a broad and very funnily deployed Scottish accent, his Frosch – as drunk or hung over as his boss, Frank – was a delicious loose cannon, bumbling haphazardly into the audience, pouring scorn on orchestra and conductor, and the audience too; and without deploying any kind of flood of expletives, generally taking the piss out of everyone, including the haplessly warbling Alfred, locked in his cell (a particularly good bit of set design). Sense and order is brought to Act 3 by his boss, Frank, the prison governor who has mistaken and misarrested Alfred for Eisenstein. As well as possessing an agreeable voice, Michael Green gave, I suggest, one of the star performances of the evening as the longsuffering Frank, who is left to cope with one interloper after another in the early stages of Act 3, before all is revealed. A delightful, well-deployed collection of affable greetings, perplexity, charm, shrugs and grimaces were just part of his very ample repertoire: his exchange with Adele was rather nicely backed by shadows, thanks to James Fitzpatrick’s lighting.
What does this all amount to? With a few reservations and the odd cavil, another success for Opera Warwick, one which went down patently well with the considerable student contingent, as well as the outsider members, of the audience. One is prepared to make certain allowances for student productions, even at the London music colleges. But here there was no need to patronise. Opera Warwick continues to show that flair, quality and ability that makes it one of the most stylish and impressive companies that England currently deploys. Stage fun, quality organising, strength in depth and a quite magnificent orchestra invariably take this company right to the top of the tree.