Nothing played straight with this bat

A touch of Tosca as opera singer Alfred (Paul Charles Clarke) prepares to leave his love Rosalinde (Nuccia Focile) by leaping from the ramparts . . . well all right, balcony. Pictures: Clive Barda

Die Fledermaus

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THIS is Strauss meets Gilbert & Sullivan with a touch of  Ben Travers thrown in for good measure in an operatic romp of an evening.

Purists might pale at some of the liberties taken with the text, or the introduction of song and dance routines, but who cares, certainly not the first night audience at Birmingham Hippodrome who enjoyed every rollicking minute.

Die Feldermaus with music by Johann Strauss II was a frothy, operatta in its day  (1874) and evolved from a play which in turn was based on both a German farce called The Prison and a play doing the rounds in French vaudeville.

This new production by WNO keeps the elegance of wealthy Viennese society in the Austrian capital's heyday and the sumptuous splendour of  Viennese balls but brings the operetta bang up to date with references to bankers likely to be found in jails along with politicians who are claiming jail cells as a second home.

Classical actor  Desmond Barrit revels in the role of drunken prison warder Frosch in a masterclass of comic acting

We have Russian millionaire Prince Orlofsky (Helen Lepalaan) singing that first he cannot stand Strauss and then announcing the thing he hates most is Die Fledermaus – which, by a happy coincidence for the English librettists David Pountney and Leonard Hancock, rhymes nicely with Strauss.

There is even an advertisment for Il Trovatore, which is running on alternate nights, dropped idly into conversation..

The operetta opens with Alfred, a contender for world's most annoying tenor, played very much tongue in cheek by Paul Charles Clarke, serenading Rosalinde, played by the wonderful Italian soprano Nuccia Focile . She not only has a fine voice but a bent for comedy, sending up the worst of opera wonderfully in her snatches of duets with Alfred.

Alfred is still chasing Rosalinde despite her being married and as her husband is about to be jailed for eight days for punching a policeman sees his chance appearing over the horizon like an aria in a second rate opera.

Gabriel von Eisenstein, played with flair by Mark Stone, is not going behind bars without a fight though and decides to have a last fling of freedom at a party hosted by Prince Orlfsky . A decision ending with a gloriously funny rendition of Oh Dear, Oh Dear How sorry I am as he heads off to the party or, as his wife thinks, prison.

The invite has come from his friend Dr  Falke though, who is still looking for revenge after a previous fancy dress party when he had gone as a bat – see the connection? -  and had been left rather compromised in an embarrassing position on a park bench by his so called friend.

Eisenstein should have smelled a rat, or a bat in this case, but his thoughts are way below head height with the promise of young ladies as sweet, soft and ripe as peaches so off he goes to to see the Prince and his peaches.

Gabriel von Eisenstain (Mark Stone) is about to find infidelity is a dangerous game, particularly when the other woman is your wife Rosalinde (Nuccia Focile) in disguise as the Prince (Helen Lepalaan, left) and Dr Falke (David Stout) the architect of  the domestic drama to come, look on.

No sooner is he out of the door though than Alfred like a rat, or bat, up a drainpipe is in lthere and makes himself at home, taking off his shoes and trousers and donning Eisenstein's dressing gown which presumably is the Viennese high society equivalent of pipe and slippers.

When Herr Frank, (Alan Opie) the prison governor turns up to arrest Gabriel . . . well the only thing a bloke with no trousers in the sitting room of a respectable married woman can do can do is pretend to be the husband and head off to jail to save Rosalinde's honor.

Falk has also invited the Eisenstein's parlour-maid, Adele – sung beautifully by Joanne Boag who shows a great sense of fun – suggesting she turns up as the famous actress Olga.

Also on the invite list is Rosalinde who is tempted by a letter telling her she will see her husband up to no good at the party and suggesting she disguises herself as a Hungarian countess. Showing there is no end to the gullibility of Austrian high society prison governor  Frank is also there as Chevalier Chagrin - as instructed.

Gabriel meanwhile is pretending to be Marquis Renard and might have got away with it had he not made the fatal mistake of trying to pull the Hungarian Countess not knowing it is his wife. Viennese socialites were apparently not very observant and quite dim.

Well as the old champagne flowed and dawn came up the Marquis and Chevalier, by now best of drinking buddies, head off home or as it happens. in this case,  to jail.

The first act sets the scene and the second provides the ball full of the music of Strauss, in pretty well every version of the operetta the ball does tend to drag its elegant feet a little, but the final act in the jail in this new version is a gem.

It opens with a sort of Austrian cousin of Rab C Nesbitt as the prison warder Frosch staggers in with his mop and bucket. Frosch is played by National Theatre and RSC actor Desmond Barrit who was last seen in Birmingham as W H Auden in Habit of Art at Birmingham Rep.

Adele, or is it actress Olga, two for the price of one from Joanne Boag

With Alfred in the cells we have snippets of Go Compare, Just One Cornetto, and Frosch's worries about the other tenors (“They hunt in packs. There are usually three of them”) Bill Oddie gets a mention while the gloriously drunk jailer explains to us that despite the fact this is opera he is not a butch Katherine Jenkins.

Barrit, a wonderful character actor, makes the scene his own with some brilliant one liners, asides and gestures.

Frank also has his moments as he tries to return to reality through a haze of champagne sodden thoughts with faces in pictures moving and coat hooks rising and falling in time with his brain.

As everyone eventually arrives at the jail Gabriel placates his missus blaming the champagne while her case is not really strengthened by having Alfred in the house with no trousers as soon as hubby left for jail, or at least a party.

But this is determined to be a happy ending so the Prince pops up to support Adele's artistic ambitions as an actress, Gabriel and Rosalinde forgive each other, and everyone blames the champagne – which obviously calls for another drink, Vienna's lock up must be the only jail in the world with champagne on ice.

The direction by John Copley is slick and along with conductor Thomas Rösner and the excellent orchestra, keep things moving at a cracking pace – which is just as well as it runs at just over three hours although it feels nothing like that. You know you are in for a lively evening when the long overture positive sparkles.

Sets by Tim Reed and costumes by Deirdre Clancy, as we expect of WNO, are excellent and choreographer Stuart Hopps has done a fine job in bringing some real song and dance routines into the production that would not be out of place in a 1940s MGM musical.

Singing and acting could not be faulted and the whole evening is a delight of laugh-out-loud fun.

Roger Clarke 

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