Sunday, January 17, 2016

Waltzing Away the New Year in Vienna

Die Fledermaus
Operetta by Johann Strauss
Volksoper, Vienna, Austria
December 31, 2015

Orlofsky's Ball
Photo credit: Volksoper
Lei: The third stop this holiday season in our opera tourism series is Die Fledermaus at Vienna’s Volksoper – on New Year’s Eve, no less. And yes, with back-to-back tickets for a gala Viennese ball immediately after the opera. One must do things right or not at all.

Lui: Nothing says New Year’s Eve quite like the effervescent waltzes of Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus. This was our third Fledermaus in a little over a year, but our first entirely in the original German. And if there’s one place where you think they might know where to do it right, it is definitely here: in Vienna. What a city. Culturally it is hard to beat. It is full of great art and museums. And there is music, whether classical or otherwise everywhere. The opera-going experience is unique as well.

Die Volksoper all lit up for the new year
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: The opera-for-the-people theater was our backup plan (the Wiener Staatsoper was sold out), and although it looked and felt less glamorous, grand and centrally located than the main Vienna opera house, it was nevertheless very well suited for an operetta like Die Fledermaus. The Volksoper is pretty intimate and very unfussy in terms of its décor yet very civilized on the things that matter: there’s a coat check on every floor and the main foyer is nicely decorated and serves champagne minions. Also, acoustics and views were excellent, even in our nosebleed seats. The only flaw to me were the English supertitles that translated the arias verbatim but only summarized the general gist of the dialogue-heavy interludes, which forced non-German speakers to miss out big time on the many jokes (and we could tell they were good ones judging by the many belly laughs that frequently cascaded through the audience).

Chacun à son goût
Photo credit: Volksoper
Lui: After having only just recently enjoyed an English adaption at the Met, in the original German the operetta seemed to flow right along. One of the most glaring differences in seeing the original libretto performed was the different take on the Prince Orlovsky character. His key Chacun à son goût aria has a decidedly sadistic bent to it as it was originally conceived. He boasts of poor hospitality skills. He forces his guests to drink massive amounts of vodka and if they can’t keep up he unapologetically vows to throw the bottle at their head. When asked why he is such an insensitive, inconsiderate, cruel jerk, in the German version of the libretto his response is, “Don’t ask me why I behave like I do, just understand: Chacun à son goût!” To each his own. He’s going to do whatever he wants, so suck it up. He is bored and ennui ridden and so he unleashes himself on his guests for his own divertissement.

In the English adaptation performed in the most recent production at the Met they tidy up this little bit of princely barbarism and turn him into an advocate for radical individualism and self expression. The text sung by the Met’s Orlovsky homilizes his commitment to creating an atmosphere at his parties in which everyone feels at ease to be whomever they please. Chacun à son goût! In an entirely different interpretation of the “to each his own” motto, the Orlovsky’s cruel frat boy tendencies have been whitewashed and he becomes a quainter feel good character.

Two fake Frenchmen
Photo credit: Volksoper
On the same note, whereas the Met’s adaptation manages to foil the bat’s plans and turn the whole debacle into a comedy of remarriage between the temporarily estranged Eisenstein couple, the Volksoper’s take on the ending emphasizes the successful completion of the revenge of the bat. A very subtle shift that leaves you with a different feeling at the end of the night. And it runs deeper than just casting. When you play the Eisensteins (Jorg Schneider and Melba Ramos) as a couple awash in the doldrums of middle age and Herr von Eisenstein in particular as a dirty old man, then the whole trajectory of the plot takes on a different tone. The final image the Volksoper leaves us with is that of an only slightly repentant old lecher who is forced to publicly acknowledge the mistakes he was duped into making by the sly Dr. Falke (Marco Di Sapia) and grant the bat satisfaction in his revenge. There is little of the reconciliation between the Eisensteins that makes for a much more uplifting ending: the couple in their mid-marriage crisis rediscovers love. The German take leaves us where we began only with their faults revealed to the world.

The Hungarian countess makes her entrance
Photo credit: Volksoper
Lei: This was my first “authentic” Die Fledermaus as in NYC so far I’ve only seen various degrees of English bastardizations of it. When fully performed in its original German, in this articulation Strauss’ operetta flows way better since the musicality of the language matches the score and also moves much faster, particularly when compared to the Met’s production that extended the show by almost another hour with its lengthy dialogues. Sure the Volksopera’s sets were pretty traditional and far less spectacular than the Met’s lavish production, however the overall performance was no less entertaining for that reason. Orchestra led by maestro Rudolf Bibl was tight and energetic and captivating, making the delicious tunes as danceable and enjoyable as ever. Singers were solid and obviously all very comfortable in their parts and had terrific comic chops, the most endearing aspect, however, was to perceive how the Viennese public so obviously adored this operetta, responding with warmth to uber-familiar musical numbers and jokes.

Die Fledermaus unwinds his revenge
Photo credit: Volksoper
Lui: The cast was solid. In the role of Alfred, Vincent Shirrmacher was particularly pleasurable. He has a solid tenor voice and an infectiously flamboyant, playful stage presence. His coiffure and facial expressions lent him the air of a caricature or cartoon character. He was a lot of fun to watch.

Einsentein and his infamous gold watch
Photo credit: Volksoper
Lei: I particularly enjoyed mezzo Martina Mikelić as Prince Orlofsky. Not only was her vocal delivery the perfect mix of regal flair and princely ennui, but her stage presence was sensational. Tall and lanky, with her long hair in a low ponytail, tight black pants, knee high boots and a fabulous embroidered robe, she moved on the stage as true royalty and dominated each scene she was in.
A joyously cynical finale
Photo credit: Volksoper

Lui: Our neighbor during the opera was a passionate local gentleman by the name of Peter – a retired gardener, he seemed to indicate in his broken English – who was there with his elderly mother. He was a big fan of Strauss and conducted along with the orchestra during all of the big set piece waltzes, laughed exuberantly with the comic interludes and mimed all the key plot points for us. He vaunted of having seen the opera at least twenty times and knew all of the scenes by heart. His joy was infectious and during the intermissions he told us a barrage of Austrian drinking jokes in colorful German – or so we were told by other opera goers equally captivated by his method of delivery that tended toward the Chaplin-esque. If only my German was good enough to catch their meaning. One of the beats I did catch was that when Peter’s mother is around, Peter is in prison with his hands cuffed. Without his mother, Peter is free! Peter die schauspieler! Indeed.  

Die lovely Volksoper
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: It was a colorful, joyous evening. The festive spirit was in the air. Even despite its sadistic, less feel good slant, with all its bubbly tunes and bouncy waltzes, Die Fledermaus is a great way to get your party started. And from there we were off to an Orlovsky-esque ball of our own at the Rathaus in the center of Vienna to waltz our night away into the new year.

– Lui & Lei

From one ball to the other - Rathaus Silvester Ball
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco 
Die magnificent Rathaus
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

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