According to General and Production Director Pierre Dufour, tonight’s production of Die Fledermaus, or in this case La Chauve Souris, was to be in the style of the vaudeville and burlesque. Set in 1930’s upper class Montréal, the production was purchased from Opera Australia though Stage Director Oriol Tomas’s conceptual influence would prove wholly original. Burlesque was in fact the perfect word: when the promise of dance and champagne had been fulfilled, the story was rife with playful groping, exotic dancers, disco balls, a drag queen and yes, even a little homage to Psy’s Gangnam Style, which nearly brought the audience to their knees.
The purist in me at first attempted to find fault in such artistic liberties, but then I was forced to remember that this operetta is entirely of the comedic genre. There is no death, infidelity is met not with murderous rage but with drunken one-upmanship, and the Mephistophelean plot of vengeance culminates only in public shame, not eternal damnation à la Don Giovanni. Therefore, when Oriol Tomas chose to insert a 30s style jazz arrangement of J’ai deux amours accompanied by half-naked male dancers, the disparity in the juxtaposition of Strauss Jr. and cabaret crooning was merely unsettling rather than blasphemous.
The cast tonight was young, featuring many alumni of Montréal’s Atelier Lyrique, but the self-proclaimed star of the evening was the Québec ‘prince of tenors’ Marc Herveiux, who famously went on a vocal chord strike at the first rehearsal in protest of l’Opéra de Montréal’s posters which feature young models instead of singers. He demanded the actual performers be put on the posters instead, the result of which has left the city with a bland headshot of the tenor on all of their marketing materials. He shined tonight both as an actor and singer, but perhaps not enough to warrant such diva treatment.
The libretto was sung in French, as one would have guessed for a Montréal setting, and quite effectively shifted periodically to English, as you might hear on the streets of our city. A gleaming cross could be seen in Act I such as the one which sits atop Mont Royal, illuminated. This is the story of a vengeful plot hatched by Falke (Dominique Côté) who is friends with Gabriel (Marc Hervieux), though he bears the painful memory of the night he was left half drunk at the foot of Mount Royal wearing a bat costume. The next morning he was forced to parade through the streets to the din of all the city’s guffaw.
There was some fine singing amidst the exciting action. Most impressive tonight was Dominique Côté, whose voice cut through the difficult hall with ease and contained all the joviality of a party-goer and the scheming of a master conniver. Marianne Lambert shined in her boisterous portrayal of Adèle the chambermaid-turned-actress, displaying an athletic and clear voice while executing some very precarious blocking. Marc Hervieux was of course a delight to watch and hear. Thomas Macleay who portrayed the wrongfully imprisoned lover of Rosaline was at times a Romeo troubadour, and at other times inspired to burst into strains of Italian arias from his cell.
A very fine addition to the production was actor Martin Drainville who performed the role of Frosch, a prison guard. His intoxicated scene at the prison was absolutely hilarious, as aided by bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre who portrayed Frank, the prison warden whose acting was as superb as his singing. In the prison alongside Rosaline’s anglophone lover Alfred was a female serial killer, a drunk and a maniac who hissed like Hannibal Lecter.
The orchestra this evening was the Montréal Symphony, led by Canadian conductor Timothy Vernon who is the founding Artistic Director of Pacific Opera Victoria. His conducting was extremely clear and energetic, but he failed at most times to bring out that characteristic Viennese lilt which the music of Strauss Jr. so longs for. Furthermore, the wit and style that so complements this score was usually ignored, resulting in an accurate but rather flat orchestral interpretation.
On the floor of the stage was a row of microphones, which caused some odd acoustical effects throughout the performance. Some singers were amplified, and some not, while others seemed to be amplified only part of the time. I found myself wishing that the projecting capabilities of the singers themselves would be relied upon instead of this distracting method of amplification.
The culmination of this production which included some 165 people in all on the stage including musicians was a raucous ensemble number in which all of the attendees of the ball appear at the jail to witness the revenge of the bat as his friend Gabriel is imprisoned while his wife’s lover looks on. This scene is Don Giovanni light. Instead of fiery oblivion and an almost pontificating lecture from the chorus, Gabriel is only met with merciless laughter and iron bars for eight days time.
This production by Oriol Tomas was far from orthodox, but it was immensely entertaining and for me, it succeeded in finding a kind of modern equivalent to the type of comedic atmosphere Strauss Jr. tried to create in his own time.