It took me a while to warm to director Christopher Alden’s revisionist production of Johann Strauss II’s chestnut and whipped cream torte of an operetta, but gradually the outrageous battiness of it won me over.
The story that Alden and his team fashion into a Freudian farce with touches of Bram Stoker goes like this. One morning the wealthy Herr Eisenstein, his wife Rosalinde, and her maid Adèle, receive surreptitious and separate invitations to attend a ball at the home of Prince Orlovksy. Their own hidden desires make them pawns to a revenge on Eisenstein plotted by his companion Falke. Eisenstein had once abandoned Falke to public humiliation after a costume party where Falke was dressed as a bat. Hence the title of the operetta, Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”). The bat theme is repeated frequently in stage-lighting shadow play, ball costumes and Nosferatu-style men’s opera cloaks. These elements, all distractions to traditional productions, gradually contribute to a point that works: all human battiness can be blamed on too much champagne.
Alden’s first setting is Allen Moyer’s minimalist wedge-shape bedroom where a massive pocket watch swings over the tip end and a giant bed fills the broad end. On it Rosalinde tosses and turns to the magnificent waltzes of the overture, as Johannes Debus conducts the orchestra at a pace that yielded more “schmaltz” than sparkle. But that changed too, for the better, as the production progressed.
The change happens as the wedge of the bedroom set cracks open to reveal first the street, and then the second-act setting of Prince Orlofsky’s austere ballroom, dominated by a moveable Hollywood-style spiral staircase. We glimpse, then we enter, a room festooned with revellers attired fantastically by the imaginative Constance Hoffman. This set in turn gives way, with the drop of a drape, to a concrete-walled Nazi-ish prison where the third and final act happens. Symbolically, the crack in the bedroom wall lets the principal’s sexual fantasies harmlessly play themselves out in the ballroom of openness, which then leads to the truth of their self-imprisonment. Forgiveness follows.
Allen Moyer’s wildly imaginative sets did much to win me over to enjoying this production. Paul Palazzo’s lighting became an element as satisfying as a major musical role. Which brings to mind Laura Tucker, riveting as the opulent Prince Orlofsky, a lesbian who sings Russian-inflected German reeking of ennui. Michael Schade, not known for his acting, is bouncy, bright and roguish as the bon-vivant Eisenstein. What Schade is known for – the sweetness of his tone and exceptional colouristic range, especially when singing softly – is only glimpsed in this role, as in the Act II duet with Rosalinde “Dieser Anstand,so manierlich”. Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde unleashes the full power of her steely soprano in duets with her maid Adèle. Her tender second-act solo “Klange der Heimat” and Rosalinde’s impersonation of a Hungarian countess were triumphs. Ambur Braid’s Adèle, the maid who steals her mistress’ gown for the ball where she flirts with her mistress’ husband, is a show-stopper for comic acting, sparky singing and all-around glamour.
Rosalinde’s lover, the Italian tenor Alfredo, gets laughs as he enters scenes singing Verdi, and suffers numerous humiliations without the slightest embarrassment. He is wonderfully played by the rich-voiced tenor David Pomeroy. The most interesting voice is Peter Barrett’s baritone. As Falke, he is the guiding force of the action, and sings with great authority. He spends most of the third act perched above the stage on the giant pocket watch, wrapped in bat wings that he occasionally extends to mimic the moving hands of the clock. One is never quite sure whether to be disturbed by this directorial quirk or to admire the genius of it. My final answer includes both feelings: uncertainty and wonder often mingle in how we feel about the world we live in. And it has always been Christopher Alden’s desire “to reveal how powerfully opera stories can resonate with modern experience”. Then, there is, and may there always be, the irresistible music of Strauss.