Deceptively potent, irresistibly fizzy, Die Fledermaus, Johan Strauss II’s tipsy, high-spirited salute to hedonism, tends to assume, like any heady operatic cocktail, a blend of the various prevailing societal flavours currently on offer at the time of serving.
Premiered in 1874 in financially anxious Vienna — a precipitous stock market crash had flung all Europe and North America into depression — Strauss the younger, waltz king, emperor of ballroom and concert hall alike, took full advantage of the prevailing temper of the times to launch what would become arguably the bubbliest musical theatre offering of the age. Audiences were in no mood for anything less. Champagne corks popped. Glasses overflowed. Sobriety be damned. The entire Habsburg dynasty was headed for doom. Die Fledermaus offered distraction by the magnum.
No amount of drinking and carousing, however, would dull the legacy of World War II. History was waiting in the wings. In 1944, Die Fledermaus occupied a place of infamy, one of many works staged by the Nazis at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in then Czechoslovakia, its inmates — some of the Continent’s best musicians — forced to perform. Those who saw director Coline Serreau’s bitterly ironic 2004 staging at Opéra national de Paris would not soon forget the overtones of menace and dread that echoed through Bastille that November.
Casting a stark spotlight on today’s rather more abstracted realities, Toronto City Opera shifts Die Fledermaus into the post-pandemic, seemingly indelible Trumpian-stained era with a clever, thoughtful adaptation of Strauss’ enduring classic. A stylish, keen-eyed perspective on unbridled power, privilege and egregious self-indulgence set in the buzzy chaos of midtown Manhattan, this Fledermaus flies high, inventively staged, superbly well sung.
Director Stephen Carr deftly shuffles a formidable cast of 10 named characters, plus several dozen choristers, the length and depth of Harbourfront’s ample Fleck Dance Theatre stage. A liberal transladaptation of late 19th century librettists Karl Haffner and Richard Genée’s spoken text is the order of the day here, entire swarms of topical references and quips winging by as the various denizens of Central Park South and environs scramble to assert themselves in the sprawling, indifferent urban landscape that is contemporary New York.
Something to do with tax fraud and stolen documents places our unrepentant antagonist, Gabriel von Eisenstein, in the crosshairs of Justice for Dummies. The decades-old Yale fraternity stunt that left his best friend, Dr Falke, dressed in his snuggest Batman tighty-whities, drunk and unconscious, on the doorstep of the local police station is finally avenged. Falke engineers an elaborate trap to be sprung at an invitation-only, celebrity themed bacchanal — Dollarama Royalty — hosted by the artist currently known as Prince Orlofsky. “If people can’t keep up with me, it really kills my buzz.” That’s just the way Orlofsky rolls. The consequences, however reframed, are all too familiar. Strauss endures. Penthouse as playground. Moral messages go missing.
Chacun à son gout.
Projection designer Vojin Vasovic’s highly effective luminous, semi-animated scenery intensifies the focus — a destination-less drift across the city that never sleeps. All the iconic landmarks are here. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Empire State Building. The Metropolitan Museum. A stop-framed panorama of yellow taxi-choked Times Square. Streetfuls of gleaming glass towers stand oblivious. Expressionless. Unimpressed. A strategically placed quartet of overhanging, vaguely bat-winged auxiliary screens thrusts the looming cyclorama forward, casting a recognizably ominous signature across the digital backdrop in their wake. A shadowy bat signal of sorts darkly suspended over Gotham lights up to fade out. Our Caped Crusader wears evening dress.
Appearing as Falke, Danlie Rae Acebuque, partnered by fellow baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg as Eisenstein, form a resonant, well-counterpointed duo, musically and dramatically both. Acebuque a model of perpetual stylishness. Schellenberg endlessly clueless. Conspiracy launched, harmony ringing, the evening’s proceedings are set spinning with a rousing invitation from Falke. Komm mit mir zum Souper (“Skip your dinner and come with me”). Clearly revelling in their roles, the pair’s sense of fun, singly and together, is as infectious as it is inexhaustible.
Singing Rosalinde, soprano Tamar Simon, turns in a finely gauged performance as Eisenstein’s perenially exasperated wife, her voice nimble, often to the point of athleticism, high notes bell-like, her middle voice warm and embracing. Assuming the character of an anonymous, decidedly overwrought Hungarian countess per libretto in Act II, Simon surprises with an unexpectedly affecting rendition of the Czardas, a folk-flavoured Central European anthem turned poignant lament for a lost homeland.
Soprano Katelyn Bird is Adele, the Eisenstein’s reluctant maid, her stage-struck dreams of adoration and acclaim as a glamorous actor forever sustaining her, muffling Rosalinde, aka The Dragon’s incessant domestic complaints. Disguised as Countess Olga at Orlofsky’s masquerade ball, Adele gives free voice to her inner diva, Bird smooth and sly as a flirtatious wink. Strauss’ celebrated Laughing Aria, Sehr komisch, Herr Marquis, sind sie! (“You are so comical, Marquis!”), is trippingly dispatched. A young singer to be watched, theatrically poised, technically assured, gifted with an abundance of charm.
Tenor Joshua Clemenger is a delightful, endlessly lyrical Alfred, Rosalinde’s irrepressible would-be suitor, prone to sudden, typically uninvited outbursts of vocal extravagance. Mezzo-soprano Chelsea Melamed is Prince Orlofsky — haughty, rebellious, superstar of ennui — skilfully anchoring virtually the entirety of the frosted confection that forms the multi-tiered centrepiece of Fledermaus with breezy composure. Baritone Austin Larusson is an incorrigible Frank the jailer, celebrity fanboy, connoisseur of perp walks. Rachel Miller is Ida, Adele’s chic sister.
Tenor Alexander Cappellazzo appears as Eisenstein’s bungling lawyer, the hopeless, hapless Dr Blind. Alexandra Delle Donne is tough-minded, blunt talking prison guard Frosch.
The Toronto City Opera chorus — Ein Souper heut uns winkt,/Wie noch gar keins dagewesen (“We have come, one and all/To enjoy this grand occasion”) — sings with nothing less than joyful abandon. Music director Ivan Jovanovic partners, notably lush piano score at hand, teasing a considerable measure of convincing orchestral colour from his keyboard. Leading from the front of house, Maestra Jennifer Tung conducts with a firm, supportive blend of openness and command.
An artful, glowing Die Fledermaus — the perfect end to a summer’s day. And an equally ideal conclusion to TCO’s tirelessly imaginative, boundlessly resourceful 2022/23 season.