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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Strauss, Die Fledermaus: Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, Soloists, cond. Michael Rosewell, directed by Paul Curran, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, 19.11.2005 (ME)



I go to operettas about as often as I go to musicals; that is to say, never, but I made an exception in the case of this first night at the RCM, since the College has never disappointed me when it comes to staging original productions sung by future stars. My reasons for disliking this type of work are the same ones which cause me to mentally absent myself during large stretches of, for example, ‘Rosenkavalier’ – I cringe at all that ‘Nein nein, ich trink kein Wein’ stuff but am willing to endure it for the sublime opening scene, first fifteen minutes of the second act and final trio: the music of ‘Fledermaus’ never touches the sublime for me, so I stay away. To do so would have been a mistake on this occasion, as you might expect, since this extravagantly lively, witty production succeeded triumphantly in banishing all notions of the usual embarrassment.


The big problem with this work is of course the necessity for full-blown operatic quality in the singing combined with straight-theatre expertise in the delivery of the dialogue, so that one is likely to be offered either starry but not exactly sparklingly quick – witted singers, or scantily gifted singing actors. All this is brushed aside in the RCM’s version, which unites some genuine future stars of the operatic world with a director whose gift for personenregie is matched by his skill in the manipulation of dialogue-delivery. Any ‘Fledermaus’ must begin with a superlative Rosalinde, and we had that in Anna Leese, one of the RCM’s brightest stars: Anna won the 2005 Richard Tauber award, part of the prize of which is a Wigmore Hall recital – not to be missed on any account. Hers is a big, bright, gleaming soprano with richly coloured lower notes, and she uses it with taste and confidence beyond her years: one might think it rather cruel of a director to place a student singer atop a grand piano for the Czardas, but she carried it off with aplomb.



The RCM has two other stars in the Orlovsky of Anna Grevelius and the Adele of Kim Sheehan: Anna sang her music with real flair, making light of the challenging ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’, and presenting a genuinely funny portrayal of this adolescent aristo. Kim was a glamorous, feisty Adele, who almost – but not quite – persuaded me that this character does not belong right up there with Olga, Mariandel and Oskar in the ‘most irritating operatic character’ list.


The men were perhaps less remarkable, but there were still many promising voices to be heard: Andrew Staples is another major prizewinner whose career looks set to be a stellar one, and his Eisenstein, whilst lacking in that last ounce of panache at present, was a credibly odious fellow in his rather Sloane-y loucheness: Andrew’s voice is a very beautiful one, ideally suited to Mozart, and one can anticipate his Ferrando (for the Classical Opera Company) with pleasure. George Matheakakis was a very confident Frank, with a rich, burnished baritone voice and a stage presence to match, and Shaun Dixon revealed an agile, at times quite Italianate tenor as Alfred – I loved his snatches of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from the prison cell. Simon Lobelson’s Falke was another confident performance: he is a student of Roderick Earle, which shows in his phrasing and vocal production.


As ever with the RCM, the smaller parts offered much to savour: Nathan Vale’s Dr. Blind, Katherine Manley’s Ida and especially Philip Shakesby’s Frosch were all enjoyable characterizations and fine singing performances, and the ‘auditions’ at Orlovsky’s party were the showcase for even more excellence  - I wish I could single them out by name, but just to highlight two of the most notable, the young lady who began the ‘Can’t help lovin’ that man’ sequence and the very tall bass who sang ‘Old Man River’ are both surely destined for future greatness.


And Paul Curran’s production? Sheer joy, from start to finish. The Eisenstein’s house is simply but tellingly represented by a huge Lempicka -  style backdrop:  Paul Edwards’ designs are consistently appropriate and stylish – a single sofa, judiciously chosen flowers, and most of all carefully planned movement which allows characters to present their flaws and foibles yet never interferes with their singing. The second act overflows with colour, fun and immediacy – it’s so much better, of course, to have a young cast here, and these partygoers represent a vibrant, carefree world to perfection. Set design again was ideally matched to the production style, with a striking colour palette of white dresses offset by red ballet shoes and Rosalinde’s slinky scarlet gown, plenty of balloons and of course champagne – why, I almost enjoyed it all!


Michael Rosewell worked his now-habitual wonders in the pit – if I didn’t loathe all that so-called ‘Viennese Schwung’ I’m sure I would have loved all those waltzes, but even my prejudiced ear was delighted with the aptly zippy, beautifully shaped phrasing and the downright excellent playing. Full marks all round – I’m such a curmudgeon that I’d be happy for the RCM to give me a constant diet of Britten and Handel, but if I have to attend the odd bit of froth, then this is about as good as it gets.



Melanie Eskenazi


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