Two years ago if you’d said to me I’d go to two operas in three days and be very happy about it I’d have laughed at you. A couple of nights ago I sat through a near-3 hour stint of Eugene Onegin performed by the Welsh National Opera and really enjoyed it, despite the gittish-ness of the ‘hero’ and the wetness of the main female character. I was really looking forward to seeing Die Fledermaus (The Bat) at The Bristol Hippodrome too, but expecting again to be slightly frustrated by old-fashioned attitudes to women and love, especially from an 1874 comedy of errors involving mistaken identities and the like.
I was wonderfully surprised by how fresh and modern this opera felt. Although the setting was obviously a very different time the characters were all recognisable, from the sassy maid to the middle-aged lothario and his laddish relationship with his best friend. The female characters were quite as capable as the men of behaving badly and standing up for themselves. The party in the middle – although set as a fancy ball – felt like a few I’ve been to, with everyone declaring life-long love for each other in the tipsy early hours then dancing like loons until the sun rose. In fact this was by far my favourite part, and I am amused that I was thoroughly earwormed by the dance track. When I say dance track of course I mean a Johann Strausse waltz. It was a particularly good waltz.
I really, really, really enjoyed this opera, all three hours and two intervals of it. It was funny and exuberant and joyful and happy and the cast and conductor gave every impression of having the time of their lives during it and especially during the final curtain. The last act was a joy, with the wonderful Steve Spiers performing a near stand-up comedy turn as Frosch. I’ve had to google today to find out if that was a usual part of the opera and it seems it is, although it’s usually adapted for the production. In this case Frosch spent a lot of time heckling the orchestra and brought tears to my eyes more than once. Following this there was a lot of tying up loose ends which involved fake lawyers, deciding which husband was the real husband, a parlourmaid finding a sponsor for her theatrical career, rekindled love and friendships built on false identities surviving the exposure of the real identities among other things. And of course, a man dressed in a truly awful bat costume. The storyline was convoluted and funny, and the music wonderful. It’s worth mentioning that this performance was in English, although the surtitles above stage were still there so it was easy to follow the story even when I couldn’t quite make out the words. This production also had amazing dresses – it must be great to be a WNO costume designer as so many productions involve large numbers of fancy dresses in different styles and patterns. The singing was as wonderful as you’d expect from the WNO, and although there were some arias of the type that I might have found offputting a couple of years ago, these had melodies and words and were as enjoyable for me as the chorus singing and the various other songs that different members of the cast performed.
I came out of this three-hour stint with a big smile on my face, as did my companion who had been quite grumpy earlier in the evening. We saw plenty of others like us, and even the man who shared the car park lift with us looked so cheery that we asked him if he’d also just been to the Hippodrome (he had, and loved it). The WNO will be back again in the spring with three more operas in three nights. None look quite as jolly as Die Fledermaus, but I suspect that both Don Giovanni and Tosca will be great ones for novice opera-lovers and I can’t wait to see them.