in: Reviews

February 1, 2018

Suitably Irreverent Bat Echolocates at Agassiz

by

Arianna Paz juggles and sings opera (Benjamin Grimm).

Die Fledermaus might seem like an unlikely candidate for immortality: it’s an operetta, after all, with a story as silly as any Gilbert & Sullivan libretto; it includes a high proportion of the usual hi-jinks, disguises and mistaken identities readily perceived by everyone. Aristocratic decorum hardly exists.  Sopranos and tenors shriek, magnums of champagne overflow, and no opportunity for dancing goes un-stepped — the “feather-brained levity” that Joseph Kerman spoke of in connection with Rosenkavalier certainly obtains here. But Fledermaus must be the most quintessentially Viennese confection ever mounted on a stage. And in Vienna, tradition is more traditional even than in Fiddler on the Roof; the only operetta allowed to run in the Staatsoper is Fledermaus. In Vienna, if you want to see Zigeunerbaron or any other operetta by Johann Strauss the Younger, or any by von Suppé or Waldteufel or Millöcker or Lehár, you go to the Volksoper, but at the Wiener Staatsoper you can see Die Fledermaus, perhaps even on Sylvester (New Year’s Eve).

Alerted by the program booklet beforehand, I expected that Wednesday’s Harvard College Opera production at Agassiz Theater — entirely by undergraduate students, singers and orchestra alike — might be explosively mod or camp, I prepared myself to detest such heresy and parody. But once settled in, I accepted its premises, and in fact I was delighted. The natural abundance of college-style slapstick and overacting only added to fun that Fledermaus absolutely requires. As the evening progressed the stage became totally littered with plastic beach toys and garden furniture, packing peanuts, and waste paper. (Hint to future performances: use styrofoam peanuts or zuzus, not cornstarch, which turn into messy glue when wet.) The Eisensteins’ haut-bourgeois drawing room became a basement storeroom with shelves and cartons.

Eisenstein enters in a gray business suit with Rosalinde in a plain house dress in Act I, before they become matching halves of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the Maskenball in Act II. Falke, who had been the Bat in the historical Scherz before the opera begins, appears in Act II costumed — you got it — as Batman, with mask and cape. Frank, the jailer, turns up as Big Bird. Some of the standard props have been completely transformed. Eisenstein’s chiming watch becomes a banana (plucked by Rosalinde but not hidden in her décolleté); Dr. Blind, the stuttering lawyer, is present only as a hand puppet. One addition to the production, not normally seen, is the role of a professorial Narrator (Gordon Teskey), a non-student coryphaeus who tells the story while seated conspicuously in a classic Harvard chair at stage right; during the ball in the Act II finale (“Ha, welch’ ein Fest, welche Nacht voll Freud!”), he stood up, danced for a moment with a scary plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex, and then was chased away, never to reappear.

The music was sung in German with English supertitles projected above the stage; in the dialogue, the players spoke English. The expedient worked well, because musically the production was very good. Some of the particularly outstanding singers include: Rosalinde (Veronica Richer) and Adele (Arianna Paz), who have fearless high registers and good projection and enunciation, and Alfred (Samuel Rosner), whose clear tenor penetrated every corner of the small Agassiz Theater. Ethan Craigo as Eisenstein sang clearly, but his voice, lacking operatic projection, is more like that of a Lieder singer. I never expected to encounter a countertenor among a student population, but Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Prince Orlovsky made a fine soprano, rich in tone and expression, reversing the gender but not the vocal range of the classic Hosenrolle.

Pared-down from Strauss’s original, (strings 3-3-2-2-1) and placed on the floor in front of the stage, the orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers, though it left us missing very little. Supertitles and clear enunciation put the words across. Alexander Yakub conducted the ensemble with close attention and good flexibility. He and the stage director, Mitchell Polonsky, deserve a cheer for their expert control. Despite my prejudices in favor of the more traditional approaches to staging, which in general remain firm, I make an enthusiastic exception for this boisterous Fledermaus. The run continues through Sunday. Tickets HERE.

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In many of my BMInt reviews, I write more about the compositions than the performances, but Die Fledermaus is so familiar, that I hardly need to describe the music. Johann Strauss, Jr., three years old when Franz Schubert died, is surely one of his natural successors, and there’s nothing in Die Fledermaus that is markedly original in either form or style. But what Arnold Schoenberg wrote in “Fundamentals of Musical Composition” applies equally to Strauss: “Constant repetition of a rhythmic figure, as in popular music, lends a popular touch to many Schubertian melodies. But their real nobility manifests itself in their rich melodic contour.” Strauss’s nobility arises from his melodic elegance; the songs and dances in Fledermaus are certainly unforgettable.

I first heard Die Fledermaus in 1954, a live production at the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue; it was torn down three years later. As a mere teenager I didn’t understand it, and I don’t remember much about it except that Phyllis Curtin sang Rosalinde, and the whole thing was conducted by — I think — Klaus Liepmann. I’d be interested if any of our readers remember that production. To prepare for this one, I watched a charming video of a production by the State Opera of Bavaria, with Eberhard Wächter (Eisenstein), Pamela Coburn (Rosalinde), and Brigitte Fassbaender (Orlovsky), conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

The entire cast in Benjamin Grimm photo

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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