Take a full measure of Straussian operetta, add a jigger of slapstick, a splash of social satire, shake well with a shot of Freud and you have the Die Fledermaus served up by the Canadian Opera Company this fall. For all its frothiness and effervescence, this boozy cocktail packs a potentially heady punch.
The story of Strauss’s mid-nineteenth century operetta unravels in two distinct settings sharply divided, at least in contemporary retellings like this one, by a startling change in tone that cuts like a jagged tear across what otherwise might be a simply quaint comedy of manners. In the right set of hands, this of-the-period work is transformed into something much more targeted.
Wealthy man-about-town, Gabriel von Eisenstein, is far too distracted to realize that his wife Rosalinde is secretly being wooed. His incompetent lawyer has just landed him with eight days in jail for a petty police offence. Enter Dr. Falke, friend and fellow bon vivant, with news of a surprise masquerade ball being held that very night. The lure of wine, women and waltz is irresistible. When Eisenstein leaves to serve his sentence dressed in evening clothes, Rosalinde grows suspicious. Re-enter her lusty suitor, Alfred. Suddenly, in bursts Frank, the prison warden. He and his assistant, Frosch, have come to take Rosalinde’s spouse off to prison. Rosalinde, fearful of tarnishing her reputation, passes off Alfred as the condemned man.
The festivities are in full swing at the mansion of Baden’s favourite libertine, Count Orlofsky. The world-weary Prince hopes the night will prove amusing. Dr. Falke has promised a witty diversion called, The Bat’s Revenge. Eisenstein, alias, the Marquis Renard is announced and immediately spots his wife’s maid, Adele, a.k.a. Olga, the actress, wearing one of her employer’s glamorous gowns. Frank, the prison warden, appears on the scene posing as playboy Chevalier Chagrin followed shortly by none other than Rosalinde impersonating a masked Hungarian countess. Eisenstein flirts outrageously with the mysterious aristocrat, flashing his expensive pocket watch to impress her. The Countess snatches it from him.
Returning to the party, Eisenstein describes the practical joke he once played on Falke. Instead of taking him home drunk in the wake of a similar costume ball they both had once attended, Eisenstein had abandoned Falke, still cloaked in a bat costume, to sleep all night on a cold park bench. The next morning Falke awakened to the ridicule of the entire town. He has never forgiven his so-called friend.
Later that morning, in the grim reality of Baden’s prison, Frank, the hard-partying warden, is too hung over to recall many details of the recent celebration. At long last, Eisenstein surrenders himself to serve his sentence only to be told that someone by his name is already in custody. Alfred’s lawyer, the ever bungling Dr. Blind, has yet to free Rosalinde’s admirer. Suddenly who should arrtive but Rosalinde herself. Quickly disguising himself as Blind’s doppelganger, a jealous Eisenstein interrogates them both. His moral outrage quickly blows itself out when his wife produces his pocket watch, proof of his philandering. Eisenstein is humiliated. The Bat has played out his counter joke.
Farcical? Agreed. Frivolous? Not so much.
Christopher Alden, director of this COC-originated presentation, works on a broad canvas. Beneath the silly comic surface of Die Fledermaus lie much darker depths. The threat of prison casts a virtual shadow across Eisenstein’s world from the very outset. He can party hearty with the best of the worst in Baden’s demimonde, but we are in no doubt that there is a cell waiting with his name on it. The fact that he can delay serving his sentence for two full acts thanks to the shared louche behaviour of warden Frank speaks of authority caught with its pants down. The law is in disorder. Frank’s henchman, Frosch, insists prison is a jolly place but there is a nasty tone to his voice and a disingenuous smirk that imply a harsh irony. Stiff black uniforms, high leather boots, a loaded revolver fired into the air — jail is no joke. Never was, never will be. A vague whiff of totalitarianism hangs in the air. And it is all downright scary.
The psychology of Die Fledermaus comes under equal scrutiny on director Alden’s watch. Granted, the need to drink and carouse has always seemed positively compulsive in Strauss’s original characters. Naughty behaviour in general is utterly irresistible to them. Doubtless much of the obsessive merry-making is a reflection of Strauss’s age. In 1874, a stock market crash threw the Austrian economy into melt-down. Audiences were in no mood for more doom and gloom. Understandable and familiar in a twenty-first century context, but in this new Die Fledermaus, a Freudian pov trumps the historical. Dr. Falke becomes the literal cigar-smoking embodiment of the great Viennese pyscho-theorist. Id is everywhere. And libido. And the subconscious. Even hypnotism which fascinated the father of analysis. Eisenstein’s timepiece is a tool for mesmerization. With a snap of his fingers, Falke awakens Rosalinde from a romantic reverie. If only all of Alden’s conceits were as effective. Act II, the ball scene, is oddly unanimated despite cues to the contrary in libretto and score. Still, credit due. Alden’s vision is fascinating.
One strong note that does prevail, however, from curtain to curtain in this new Fledermaus. Strauss the Waltz King’s work has surely never been more awash with deliciously sung solos and ensembles. Michael Schade’s lofty, rock-solid tenor is a perfect fit for an Eisenstein. The role favours stylishness and control over jazzy embellishment and, although he possesses a towering upper register, the popular Canadian singer actor makes consistently tasteful vocal choices throughout the production. Sopranos Tamara Wilson and Amber Braid, Rosalinde and Adele respectively, both bring a polished, sophisticated quality to their performances. Wilson’s strong, impeccable tone graces her particularly heartfelt rendition of Act II’s famous Czarda while Braid’s youthful energetic sound makes for a delightful, flirty, “Mein Herr Marquis”. An especially loud bravo! for baritone Peter Barrett as the all-controlling Dr. Falke. Singspiel can run the risk of falling flat in its non-sung moments but Barrett applies a compelling sly, slippery tunefulness to even his purely spoken lines. On the conductor’s podium is COC music director Johannes Debus who leads his magnificent orchestra with elegance and confidence along Strauss’s long lilting melodic lines. The prelude, with its tantalizing hints of the irresistible Fledermaus Waltz to come, is worth the price of admission alone.
If music drives this Fledermaus, costume is its flashy set of wheels. Designer Constance Hoffman has drawn much of her inspiration from the classic films of Ernst Lubitsch. Bedecked in high fashion from evening wear to undies, the not-so-good folk of Baden parade across the expansive Four Seasons Centre stage in a mostly non-stop black and white panorama. The metaphor of stark polar worlds in standoff, marriage vs. infidelity, social convention vs. mad abandon, could not be more graphic. Or visually seductive.
The production has its flaws. Through-direction is a bit potholed. But the new COC presentation is a gorgeous spectacle for the eye. And an utter thrill to hear. House lights down. Enter the Bat Girls. This Die Fledermaus flies straight out of our dreams.