Die Fledermaus and Elektra: Emotional trauma and tortured self-examination at the opera

This autumn, there's a generous helping of dark, psychological drama available in London's opera houses.

Elektra; Die Fledermaus
Royal Opera House; English National Opera

Psychosexual malaise is the order of the day in London’s opera houses this autumn. Whether you prefer it served up with comedy in English National Opera’s Die Fledermaus or horror at the Royal Opera House’s Elektra is up to you, but either way you can expect lashings of emotional trauma and tortured self-examination.

Unfortunately in the case of Fledermaus the audience themselves are the victims of most of the trauma, and director Christopher Alden undertakes none of the self-examination. Strauss’s Rosalinde and Gabriel Von Eisenstein find themselves strapped to Dr Freud’s couch in fin-de-siecle Vienna, unable to engage in the easy, waltzing plot because they are too busy being analysed and essentialised. We discover Rosalinde (Julia Sporsen) asleep in bed, beset by erotic dreams and bats, who eventually morph into the vengeaful Dr Falke (Richard Burkhard). Above the action an oversized version of the Eisenstein’s pocket-watch (or perhaps Dali’s) swings mesmerically back and forth, jolting us out of the action every time things threaten to get too real.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Alden strips his characters of all but their comedic shells, leaving Rian Lois’s Adele as a hollow caricature of maribou feathers and maddening silliness, Alfred (Edgaras Montvidas) as a posing buffoon and Rosalinde herself as a cipher. This is a comedy desperately in search of some psychological subtext, and Sporsen finds herself caught between the explicit and the implicit and sadly fails to sing her way out of it. Her czardas is pretty enough, but lacks any real hit of exotic sex-appeal.

Preserving much of the spoken dialogue (perhaps unwisely, given singers’ habitual problems with acting), Alden condemns his cast to long swathes of lukewarm wit, that curdles uncomfortably with the unexpected addition of a jackbooting Nazi Frosch (Jan Pohl). Andrew Shore’s Frank fares better, salvaging not only humour but even a little humanity from the situation. He is aided by the enchanting Jennifer Holloway as a shamelessly overdone (but no less engaging) Orlovsky, all twitching neurosis and convulsing Russian vowels.

The ENO orchestra prances gamely through Strauss’s score but under the direction of Eun Sun Kim they never quite find that excess, that giddy ecstasy that has to underpin these bourgeois little melodies if they are not to sink under their own smugness. It’s a problem to which Alden isn’t immune either. He has painted his stage loudly in the colours and conceits of Freud’s Vienna, but look even the smallest bit deeper and there’s just an emptiness where true dramatic subconscious and subtext should be. I would go so far as to diagnose Alden’s patient with a terminal strain of vapidity.

All is darker and infinitely deeper over at the Royal Opera House where Charles Edwards’ 2005 Elektra returns – a brutal triumph of musical and psychological violence. It all starts in the pit with Andris Nelsons’ orchestra. There’s weight here certainly, and as much volume as you’re ever likely to hear in this building, but more importantly there’s a clarity to Strauss’s strata of sound – the acid-bright trumpets and bosky horns looming ominously mid-texture.

Edwards’s set collides the worlds of ancient Greece and Weimar Germany, reframing the bloody atrocities of the earlier era in the context of Straus’s own age. Echoing an opera through the age of its composition is a classic technique, and one that works rather better for Edwards here than Alden at ENO. While Alden’s new world feels pasted on, Edwards embeds his action deeply, maintaining the integrity of both original and reworked contexts. He is helped by the humanity of Strauss’s writing, exposing and raking over the most potent and shameful essence of his characters, from Chrysothemis’ desperate yearning for “a woman’s destiny” to Elektra’s desire to play the man and lose herself in dominance – “I will encircle you with tendrils, I will sink myself into you”.

It takes almost an hour for any male characters to enter Strauss’s musical landscape, and in this world of women (and the sonic light-headedness of this unique resonance) our ears attune anew. In Christine Goerke’s Elektra we have a voice and presence that’s raw and dangerous. Completely in control vocally (as she demonstrates so overwhelmingly in the Recognition Scene), she still manages to find a roughness that speaks more convincingly than any amount of vocal ease of her conviction. She has her match in Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis – warmly enveloping and never less than lovely.

The maddened perversions of Klytamnestra’s eroticism-turned-inwards risk stridency in Michaela Schuster’s hands, but are digested by the scope of the production which plays to extremes. Iain Paterson’s Orest by contrast finds muted delicacy in his brief appearance – foremost among a strong supporting cast.

It’s perhaps unfair to set Johan Strauss’s feather-light score against Richard Strauss’s and expect it to compete, but in reimagining Fledermaus as a Freudian fantasy of Ids and Egos Alden made it fair game. Skin-deep psychology is never going to be a winner, and it’s just unfortunate that Edwards was on hand to show us just what we were missing.

Rhian Lois as Adele in the ENO's 'Die Fledermaus'.
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood