Johann Strauss Jr. was the forgotten man at the Four Seasons Centre on Thursday night as the Canadian Opera Company opened its production of his famous operetta, Die Fledermaus.
And that’s a pity, because of all the artists the COC has assembled for this production, Strauss is by far the most theatrical, the most subtle, the most gifted. All a company has to do is play the piece more or less true to his theatrical as well as musical instincts, and success is more or less assured.
That didn’t happen on Thursday night. There’s nothing wrong with a director creating a new style and interpretation for an operatic classic – in fact, it’s a good thing. But if you do so, you have to hope to deepen the power of the original, not dilute it. Director Christopher Alden and designer Allen Moyer should have been onto a good thing. They based their production concept on the proximity of Strauss’s Vienna to the world dominated by Sigmund Freud, which appeared just a few years later. But the addition of the symbolic world of the unconscious to the farcical world of Fledermaus was not revelatory, but simply confusing – at best. (Why was the man in the bat suit sitting on the big clock way above the stage for the whole last act, Mommy?)
It didn’t help that director Alden also decided to overplay the farcical element of the Fledermaus story – a very conventional story of marital betrayal and revenge (although on a very mild scale), so that his attempts to strengthen the inherent drama of the piece through his Freudian symbolism were undermined by his own decisions as to how the action should unfold onstage. Create a psychological drama, or create a sitcom – you can’t have both.
And the design of the production, to which so much thought had clearly been given, was strangely listless. All of Act 1, set in the heroine’s bedroom, was played more or less in stark hues – blacks and whites and greys. We get it – this is the dark Freudian world that Alden wanted to insinuate into Fledermaus. But the ball scene of Act 2, which should be the opposite – a riot of colour and movement and imagination – was static, highly stylized and strangely lifeless. Although many of the individual costumes fashioned by Constance Hoffman were extremely clever, the overall effect was that of a Busby Berkeley routine – complete with staircase – in slow motion. The contrast with the bubbly music that poured from Strauss’s pen for this act couldn’t have been more complete.
And that’s what I mean about Strauss getting lost in the proceedings. So much was happening onstage that the focus of the evening turned away from the music, it seemed, for cast and audience alike. Fledermaus is not Tristan, but the musical beauties and cleverness in the score should never be underestimated. Although the cast seemed to strengthen as the night progressed, many moments of potentially spine-tingling excitement passed by at less than full value. Nonetheless, Tamara Wilson made an effective Rosalinde, the operetta’s heroine, out to prove her husband’s infidelity while she thinks of indulging in some of her own. Her Czardas, a Hungarian-inflected aria she sings, disguised, during that ball scene was very affecting. Ambur Braid as Adele, Rosalinde’s maid, has the toughest vocal act of the evening, with the famous Laughing Song stuck right in the middle of her part. Maybe there could have been a bit more laughing in the Laughing Song, but Braid coped with the technical difficulties of the part admirably. Peter Barrett’s Dr. Falke (director Alden’s Freud stand-in) had as much stage time as many of the other principals put together, and both his voice and presence were powerfully felt. And Michael Schade, a great treasure, making his role debut as the would-be philanderer Gabriel von Eisenstein, spent so much time prancing and mincing across the stage that, for once, you yearned for the old stand-still, belt-them-out delivery from him. When that’s what he did, the results were wonderful.
A production of Fledermaus that cuts itself off from the nourishing, spring-like spirit of its frankly innocent, hedonistic music cannot long survive with a sense of life and liveliness, and, to my eye and ear, that’s precisely where this Fledermaus fails. Grand concepts are worthwhile, but in this case, Strauss’s, as conventional as it was, had more going for it.
Die Fledermaus runs until Nov. 3.