Monday, December 7, 2015

Viennese Operetta Gets Some New York Glitter

Die Fledermaus
Johann Strauss, Jr.
Metropolitan Opera
December 4, 2015

Die Fledermaus is nothing but festive fun.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: That holiday feeling is now officially upon us. There is nothing that says seasonal cheer like Die Fledermaus. Bursting with catchy waltzes and bubbling over with champagne, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s scintillating operetta really can’t help but put you in a good mood. The air is redolent with the sweet festive fragrance of schnapps. I never thought I would be as fond of this crowd-pleaser as I immediately became upon our first encounter

Prince Orlofsky cordially invites.
Photo credit; Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Last year we fell in love with this Viennese operetta when we saw it performed by indie company NY Opera Exchange, that opted for a hybrid approach of having the dialogues translated in English and leaving all songs in the original German. I thought that was the perfect balance of respecting the musicality of the original and making the dialogue-dense operetta more approachable. And so, softening up my purism about respecting the original, I got to the Met’s production with a relatively open mind, notwithstanding the fact that critics pretty much crucified the show when it opened back in 2013.

Time keeps ticking, ticking away.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Having heard such dismissive remarks about the English adaptation of the original German libretto, especially when it comes to the extended dialogue passages, I was ready to be irked. But instead many of the jokes were actually funny and the lighthearted laughter was infectious. Truly contagious. Only a few of the comedic interludes drug on a bit too long. But even then, just when you thought it had gone on too long, a zinger of a line grabbed you and you’re back into it. Laughing and letting go.

Dressed for jail, Eisenstein bids his wife farewell.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: The revised libretto was modernized and Americanized, with puns galore (“Breakfast Epiphanies”) and some truly hilarious lines. Think of Alfred the tenor who, when accused of doing only “Second rate productions of third rate operas,” retorts: “But hey I just got booked for a Death of Klinghoffer in Kuala Lumpur.” A particularly laden joke, since the lead here sung in the Met’s controversial revival not too awfully long ago. Or else, when the jailer Frosch, looking into the first rows of the orchestra, says, “You know what’s it like to work for a living. [beat.] no actually maybe you down here don’t. But you up there.” Gesturing to the peanut gallery. Yes, none of that was in the original German libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genee but boy I laughed hard, probably way more than if I had to listen to German recitatif and read a translation on the little screen. 

Frosch cracking eggs like jokes.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
When it came to the lyrics though, the English translations just did not work for me. Sung English is just not as musical and does not work as well with the score as the original. Also, the translation was often choppy in an effort to force the rhyme and resulted in a way less fluid result than if it had been sung in German. While it is true that operettas are closer to musicals than grand opera, Jeremy Sams’ production turned Die Fledermaus into something that sounded way too much like a Broadway musical for my operatic taste.

The dashing Prince Orlofsky.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lui: The cast was top notch. During the last run, I remember reading that the role of Count Orlofsky was sung initially by a countertenor which apparently added to the irksomeness of the English bastardization. This time mezzo soprano Susan Graham sang the role and she was much more palatable displaying not only great vocal power but also incredible acting chops. Pretty amazing to see her shift from the tragic role of the lesbian countess in Berg’s Lulu a few weeks ago to the extravagant Russian royal with such comedic ease

The Bat drinks to the sweet taste of his revenge.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot was a jovial Dr. Falke, aka Die Fledermaus, and displayed his usual charismatic stage presence and strong vocal expressivity. Tenor Toby Spence as Eisenstein moved well on stage and shined vocally, particularly in his duets and trios with other characters. Actor Christopher Fitzgerald was hilarious as Frosch the jailer. Even when you started to think he was taking it a little over the top for standard operatic taste especially at this venue, he went and turned things ridiculous and had you laughing. If you didn’t like tonight’s Frosch you have problems: living, laughing, letting go, loving.

Rosalinde carries the show.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: Soprano Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde carried the show. More than everybody else on stage she displayed terrific comic timing while also delivering some delicious musical numbers. Particularly memorable were her rendition of the “Hungarian Countess” aria and her many trios with other male characters. Soprano Mireille Asselin stepped in at the last minute as Adele, replacing Lucy Crowe and shining brightly in the show stopping arias of the coquettish maid turned actress. Dimitri Pittas as Alfred, Rosalinde’s ex-lover, was full voiced and hilariously ardent in the stereotype of the Italian tenor, sadly the revisions to the libretto took out most of his cameos of blockbuster Italian arias (which I find super funny in the original ‘Maus).

New York gets a little dose of Viennese glitz.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Jeremy Sams production with sets and costumes designed by Robert Jones is both simple and opulently elegant all the same time. Like few recent productions at the Met, this one really seems to have struck the right balance. Its minimalism is used to create maximalist effects. Certain aspects are all effervescent glitz and fin de siècle glamour, like the elaborate gold leaf inverted dome at Prince Orlofsky’s ballroom and the Eisenstein’s abode, others, like the jail and the make-shift promenade-the-garden space, duly set the scene with just a few scenographic brush strokes. An excellent model on which to build. The orchestra under James Levine waltzed through Strauss’s ear candy score with grace and poise. So many catchy tunes. So many greatest hits.

The Vienna of Klimt looms large over the Eisenstein abode.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: All in all a night of great fun at the opera. A tad on the musical-theater end of the spectrum but the score is so pleasant, the production so spectacular, the cast so hilarious and the dancing so delicious that I could not help but give in, enjoy the fun, dance in my seat and hum Die Fledermaus’ tunes on my way home.

- Lui & Lei

Alfred puts the moves on his old flame.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

Ida shines in the spotlight.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Rosalinde on the verge of renewing her vows.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

A troupe of Hungarian dancers completes Rosie's farce.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

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