Die Fledermaus – quintessential operetta

Wellington G&S Light Opera


Operetta in Three Acts

Director: David Skinner

Cast:  Malinda Di Leva (Adele) /  Helen Lear (Rosalinde) / Jonathan Abernethy (Alfredo) / Chris Berentson (Eisenstein) / Kieran Rayner (Dr Falke) / Kevin O’Kane (Dr.Blind) / Derek Miller (Frank) / Megan McCarthy (Ida) / Alison Hodge (Prince Orlofsky) / John Goddard (Frosch)

WGSLO Chorus and Orchestra

Hugh McMillan (conductor)

Wellington Opera House

Thursday 19th August 2010

Mention the word “operetta” to most members of the theatre- and concert-going public, and probably one of two works will most readily come to mind, either Johann Strauss Jnr’s “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), or Franz Lehar’s “Die Lustige Witwe” (The Merry Widow). None of the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan can match their Viennese counterparts for charm, glamour and romance, and of the French equivalents, only Jacques Offenbach’s “Orphée aux enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld) has made a comparable impact on the English-speaking world. For general all-round appeal, and an attractive musical style which occasionally suggests “grander” opera, the two Viennese classics are certainly hard to beat.

All credit, then, to the Wellington G&S Light Opera for presenting “Die Fledermaus”, the younger Strauss’s light-hearted and affectionate “take” on the finer points and foibles of Viennese society, a production whose musical virtues carried the day, even if some of the acting and stage business was occasionally somewhat pedestrian (Act One suffered the most in this respect, with the characters often slow to take up their cues, or indulging in too much unfocused movement). Best in terms of dramatic impact was the Second Act, the party at Prince Orlofsky’s, where the chorus work diverted our theatrical sensibilities, and the superbly-projected “presence” of the Orlovsky, mezzo-soprano Alison Hodge, commanded the stage with a worldly-wise delivery of her imperiously droll directive “Chacun au son gout!”. Another star turn (non-singing) was the scene-stealing tipsiness of Frosch, the drunken jailer, played by John Goddard, whose monologues at the beginning of Act Three in the town jail were richly fortified with comic timing and an engaging plausibility.

In general, though, it was the singing and orchestral playing which better-defined the ebb and flow of the story and the interaction between the characters – thus the opening scenes between Helen Lear’s Rosalinde, Jonathan Abernathy’s Alfredo and Malinda Di Leva’s Adele truly sparkled when they were singing, each having the ability to use the energised quality of their voices to give force and complusion to the drama. Helen Lear’s Rosalinde was attractive, and alternately vivacious and winsome, while her would-be lover Jonathan Abernathy used what sounded like a lovely lyric tenor voice to mellifluous effect. And Malinda Di Leva’s Adele made an initially lovely vocal impression during that opening scene (a gorgeously-delivered duet between her and Helen Lear), even if, in the Third Act’s “Talent” aria her tone seemed to slightly harden in places, though she was never less than accurate and musical. Both Chris Berentson as Eisenstein and Kieran Rayner as Dr.Falke, though generally seeming less at ease dramatically, were again able to flesh out their characters via their singing (making a creditable job of their “plotting” duet), even if their dialogue and stage movements didn’t have sufficient liquid flow for the comedy of their intrigue to properly ignite.

Of the others, Kevin O’Kane acquitted himself with appropriate bluster and energy as the incompetent lawyer Dr. Blind, while Derek Miller’s jail governor Frank spoke, sang and acted with spirit and character (the energetic “leave-taking” trio was superbly sung by the bogus husband, distracted wife and bemused prison governor!) Again, the stage business, both dramatic and technical, didn’t have the sweep and elan to match the singing – the “farewell kiss” was somewhat inconsequential, and the end-of-act curtain was much too slow in falling! Things improved markedly during Act Two, as the Chorus provided a well-rounded focus with their singing and deportment, and the principals taking part in the opening exchanges gave their characters plenty of energy and projection – great acting from both Malinda Di Leva and Megan McCarthy as none-too-affectionate sisters at a society party, got the Act away to a spirited start, and of course Alison Hodge as Orlovsky was a tower of strength. As well, Adele’s famous “Laughing Song” was delivered by Malinda Di Leva with just the right amount of corresponding control and panache – a nice perfomance.

I did think Helen Lear less characterful as the “Hungarian Countess” both singing and acting-wise, than in the First Act, which surprised me – I thought she might have brought more theatrical sultriness to the deception, instead of the relative inertia which overtook both her and Chris Berentson in the watch-seduction scene, one that needed far more life and sparkle between the characters. Fortunately, there was plenty of spirit in the salute to the efficacies of King Champagne, with both Adele and Eisenstein bringing energy and gaiety to their contributions; while Kieran Rayner’s Falke came into his own with a confident, and tenderly-phrased “Brother dear, and Sister sweet”, the ensemble bringing some lovely nuances and colourings to their delivery of the vocal lines.

Act Three’s opening was very properly dominated by John Goddard’s comical Frosch, the drunken jailer. Malinda di Leva, despite a touch of stridency here and there, made a fine job of Adele’s “talent” song, and, as the characters arrived in various states of compromise, both Helen Lear’s Rosalinde and Chris Berentson’s Eisenstein moved up dramatic notches from the Second Act in the denouments of each deception which followed. Spirited singing from the company brought the show to a proper whirlwind of a conclusion.

Despite the occasional unevennesses of pace, moments of non-synchronised theatrical interaction, and some lack of polish to detail, there was sufficient impetus generated on stage for the story to hold together, generated largely by singing and orchestral playing that provided a focus and an undertow of movement which helped energise people. Director David Skinner may not have replicated quite the frisson of theatrical delight he witnessed in Vienna in 1970 (a well-told story among the programme notes), but he was able to generate plenty of enthusiasm among his company, which, along with energy and purpose from the orchestral players and conductor Hugh McMillan, was enough for the show to be an evening’s worthwhile entertainment.

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