This 1984 Royal Opera House Covent Garden/BBC production,
brought to video by veteran director Humphrey Burton, despite a generally
stellar cast, fails to bring Strauss’ sweet confection of adultery, cross-dressing
and mayhem into that special place of our being that, once in a while, revels in
a good dose of savvy silliness.
From the downbeat of the overture, it was painfully obvious
that Plácido Domingo was on the wrong side of the footlights. His jerky,
frantic gestures and penchant for rough-and-ready rather than lift-and-swing
gave the music far too much edge where finesse was wanted. Further, his
inability to keep the band and boisterous crew of multilingual schemers in sync,
added another veil of uncertainty to the overall result.
Tellingly, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s second-storey set wobbled
just as uneasily, quite at odds with Hildegard Heichele’s solid performance as
Adele: if only the staging, asides and accents had some overall plan then this
production might have found its flight path and soared to the rafters.
Dennis O’Neill as the wandering tenor Alfred was, at first,
musically fine, but before the curtain had dropped on Act I his over-the-top
mannerisms became annoying—like too much salt in an otherwise fine soup. Hermann Prey was in excellent form as the lecherous Eisenstein and played well
to Kiri Te Kanawa’s sassy Rosalinde whose magnificent “Czardas” washed away much
of the Rowan & Martin party-sphere of Act II. There, Prince Orlofsky (Doris
Soffel looking as if she just stepped off the set of Alien) held court,
encouraging the throng (“every man to his own taste” his/her mantra), but
couldn’t rise above the mid-Siberian accent. Pass the vodka, please.
The party favours were hit-and-miss: Dame Hilda Bracket
and Dr. Evadne Hinge were deliciously fun in their send-up of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids” (where unintentional hilarity came from the
taped-over brand name of their grand piano—guess Steinway wouldn’t pay the
value-added premium for the “large television audience!”)—especially the “fan” engine (must be seen)—but they should have scrapped the encore (“Dear Little
Donkey”). Charles Aznavour was suave and debonair, but the reinforced sound
felt totally out of place, not to mention century.
It then fell to Sir Frederick Ashton’s pas de deux
(rendered with brilliance by Merle Park and Wayne Eagling—his lifts and turns
were exquisite) set to a Reader’s Digest version of the Voices of Spring to provide the most thoroughly convincing artistry of the whole affair.
Act III had spark but little crackle as audience favourite
Josef Meinrad bumbled happily through his portrayal of jail keeper Frosch.
However, the “business” with hats, the library “bar” and the lantern-on-a-string
drew merely giggles, not guffaws. Imagine John Cleese as the turnkey!
Throughout it all, Benjamin Luxon was a constant pleasure
as the revenge-seeking Dr. Falke: his voice beautifully controlled and clear,
his acting—particularly the reaction shots—was the pride of the cast.
Michael Langdon’s Colonel Frank had more chagrin than his French disguise.
Rather than forge a complete vision, Burton seemed content
to let his stars shine on their own. In the big crowd numbers, the chorus
remained stiff as others sang, or stilted when it was their turn and even then
left many of their final consonants scattered about the stage.
Paul Harding’s camera and Ray Nunney’s scissors were kept
busy capturing the action. There was a marvellous moment in the Act I Trio
(with Paul Crook as Dr. Blind) where the shadow of Domingo’s left hand holding
his charges on a pause could be seen on the wallpaper, but soon on its heels was
a dubbing edit that fooled no one—especially Alfred.
Towards the end, there was a moment that spoke volumes: after Frosch kidded with the Maestro, Domingo sang a phrase in reply that immediately raised the artistic bar a foot. This unintended “tenor’s revenge” conclusively supported the notion that one should do what one does best. JWR