Review: Metropolitan Opera’s New Fledermaus is Sprawling, Schticky

Thursday, January 02, 2014 - 11:00 AM

Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde and Christopher Maltman as Eisenstein in Act 2 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s 'Die Fledermaus.' Susanna Phillips and Christopher Maltman in Act 2 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s 'Die Fledermaus.' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Some of the better theatrical minds of our generation went to work on the Johann Strauss Jr. classic operetta Die Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera, giving it the "Broadway revisical" treatment, developed over years of workshops and opening on New Year's Eve with well-intended work apparent at every turn.

Director/producer Jeremy Sams wrote jokey new English lyrics, Douglas Carter Beane provided dialogue – all hoping to give these upper-middle-class Viennese characters strong, modern motivation. Like their American TV sitcom counterparts, they all "learned something" at the end of their masquerade-party galavanting. But with physical animation passing for genuine comedy, you just wanted them to shut up and sing.

Much essence was lost. One never really knows what makes a masterwork durable until those qualities fade. Springing to life one minute, dead on arrival at others, this confounding Fledermaus bounced between good theatrical sense and none at all. Put it this way: In operetta (as in film noir), characters are creatures of impulse, not psychology. Giving them stronger reasons for being – and more spoken dialogue at a house as large as the Met – taxed the overall pacing and left the operetta sprawling over a four-hour time period. As with The Enchanted Island, Sams seemed not to know when to stop, what to edit or how to best use the expansive Metropolitan Opera house.

This is not the viewpoint of a Fledermaus purist. I admit to being perversely entertained by the infamous 2001 Salzburg Festival Fledermaus when the operetta was interrupted by a sermon on Arnold Schoenberg. Others took the Sams production harder: My evening's companion showed signs of existential despair. When a charmingly dated property like this is gussied up with lines like "Let's knoodle, my strudel" (and made unavoidable by mild amplification), creakiness is compounded.

To the production's credit, the usually shticky Act III skillfully touched on the morning-after remorse when characters mourned their false personnas of the previous night with pathos that momentarily gave you something to latch onto. So did Danny Burstein, who played Frosch, the drunken jailer, in what amounted to a stand-up comedy routine with fairly sophisticated lines. One referred to the German horror film saying, "Who knew Dr. Caligari made house calls?"

But each act of the Richard Jones set designs seemed to be conceived for vastly different productions. The Eisenstein household of Act I was in saturated Hello Dolly! red. The Act II party scene had towering, gracefully detailed gridwork crowned by a giant chandelier. The jail of Act III was a Soviet-era interrogation room.

The Act II party giver, Prince Orlofsky, became the production's unofficial conscience: The plot conceit was to rescue him from boredom with intrigue in the form of husbands, wives and maids romancing each other in disguise. Much of the time, he could only say that his mind wasn't wandering. Indeed. The decision to cast the androgynous Orlofsky with a countertenor wasn't as piquant as it promised to be, with stage-savvy Anthony Roth Costanzo (whose voice projected remarkably well) saddled with bizarre costumes and many peripheral incongruities adding up to an obscure specimen of humanity.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Orlofsky and Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke in Johann Strauss, Jr.'s 'Die Fledermaus.' (Ken Howard/Met)

The well-chosen cast seemed game for anything, though punching the jokes in the English lyrics splintered the vocal lines.

Every so often, Susanna Phillips (Rosalinda) and Jane Archibald (Adele) tossed off some beautifully molded phrases that showed what fine singers they are. Christopher Maltman (Eisenstein) more consistently survived his bad jokes with melting feat of vocal color. As the plot instigator Dr. Falke, Paulo Szot willed his role to work. Lucky for Michael Fabiano that his role of Alfred, the compulsively vocalizing opera singer, mostly consisted of just singing, showing why this young artist is being favorably compared to Giuseppe di Stefano. I hope they felt supported by conductor Adam Fischer, because his flabby treatment of the overture won't do in this post-Carlos Kleiber generation.

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Comments [12]

Russ Stratton

Listening to the b'cast, I found the production leaden. Why the Met needed a new English version when the old ones from the 50s were MUCH funnier I cannot understand. Poor Orlovsky came across as plainly uncomfortable, no Tatyana T., and the Act 3 comedian? As Flanders and Swann have it, "Must alternate it with the Ring some time."

Feb. 08 2014 06:01 PM
John from NYC

Despite the generally poor reviews I saw this production last night. The reviews were, I think,too kind. This is a deeply flawed production that plays for laughs (and fails) and which ultimately lacks any heart or sensitivity. There were moments of great singing...but unfortunately these were completely overwhelmed by dialogue and lyrics that were pitched to the lowest common denominator and which went on and on and on... What caught my attention was the level of audience attrition. After Act 1 there were a lot of empty seats in the Orchestra and by the start of Act 3 about 20% of the seats appeared to be empty. As the curtain dropped at the end - and before the curtain call - there was a virtual stampede to get out of the building leaving the unfortunate cast to face a rapidly emptying house. Save your money and avoid this production.

Jan. 16 2014 11:07 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ,

To view my critique expressed earlier regarding the January 11th broadcast of DIE FLEDERMAUS properly it may be wise to mention my background. I am an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute of Boonton, NJ. where I teach voice and train artists in all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, four solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com

Jan. 13 2014 08:54 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ


DIE FLEDERMAUS and ZAUBERFLOTE, operas that over many many years have been used to celebrate festive occasions with translations into the language of the country where the vernacular would be understood, especially so to enjoy the comedy values. The radio broadcast offers sufficient audio representation to make judicious critiques. In their own roles each sang well and the conducting improved as the performance continued. For the jaded opera fan, there were, perhaps, from their own experience, nostalgically remembered better sung performances. In a more serious vein, there are composers whose contribution to music is equally solid and deserving of hearings. ARNOLD SCHOENBERG was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874. Surely he deserves mention, even if this occasion, this year, marks ONLY his 140th birthday year. I will be singing the tenor music from his "DAS LIED VON DER ERDE." I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb: Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle.

Jan. 13 2014 08:43 AM
Sylvia Newton

I was glad when it ended.

Jan. 11 2014 05:09 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

To Iam2late, I understand that for some people HD transmission is one of the only ways to see a Met production. I have no problem with the Met simply broadcasting a production with the same methods they have used in the past to record live performances to DVD's. However when you read interviews with the performers who are involved in HD transmission it is quite clear that the stage directors alter the HD productions to accommodate the many cameras used in these transmissions. Some singers are concerned with the fact that HD closeups can be intimidating, especially during some phases of long arias.
In much the same way that recording or photographing any activity alters that activity (a known fact) I doubt if people who are seeing an HD transmission are really seeing the same performance they would experience live at the Met.
As far as cost is concerned, I believe the HD tickets are in the range of $25 a seat. For someone who lives in or close to New York City a Family Circle seat is available for most performances, especially with the present fall off in Met ticket sales, for between $25 and $35 dollars a seat.
In past years it might have been difficult to get Met seats for individual performances, but for this season people can get tickets for most performances, even the famed Saturday matinee performances, and then there are the rush tickets where unsold orchestra seats can be gotten for $25.00 in some cases.
With a large number of New York City and suburban venues selling HD tickets I wonder if these transmissions are cannibalizing live audiences.
I am blessed to be able to make four or five trips to Manhattan a year, however I agree for those who cannot make this trips HD is an alternative. There are also a large number of complete operas that can be seen online available from the Met website for an individual or subscription fee.
HD may have its place, however I would hope it would be less of a disruption to the performers than it seems to be, and then there is the haunting question of voice enhancement used frequently in these performances.
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 03 2014 03:22 PM
Emma Iadanza from Long Island, NY

I saw the final dress rehearsal on Friday the 27th, and I thought it was amazing (and hilarious) - it was the best thing I had ever seen at the Met? Why doubt it so? Everyone seems to hate it. Am I the only person who likes this production??

Jan. 03 2014 02:33 PM

Dear Mr. Fischbein, As a 25+ year Met subscriber who can no longer handle the cost of an opera subscription and hassle/expense of commuting into the city by car, I very much welcome the movie theater transmissions in HD. I attended my first HD theater broadcast this autumn (Eugene Onegin) and although it certainly was not the same as being at the opera house, the experience was well worth my time and the $22 price tag! There were MANY elderly people in attendance who would likely have been unable to trek into NYC to see the performance at the opera house. I am no fan of Gelb's decision to update many of my favorite operas (I cannot even bear to VIEW the current production of La Traviata) but I do applaud Gelb's decision to make opera accessible to the many fans around the country who cannot come to NYC to attend live performances.

Jan. 03 2014 01:23 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Dear af, this is not the first time stage performers at The Metropolitan Opera were seen fitted with "voice enhancement' devices. As a matter of fact I believe this was mentioned in several past WQXR posts by staff writers, and it has also been chronicled in a number of other published stories.
When confronted with this information, various Met personnel stated these devices were for audio transmission purposes only and were used only during performances that were being transmitted for HD movie house performances and DVD live recordings. However published reports indicate that these "enhancement" devices have been used at other times.
This does not suprise me, as I believe Mr. Gelb would do anything possible to enhance ticket sales. While I am far from being a recording engineer one should remember that The Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting performances on radio for decades, and has also been recording them for CD and live DVD's without use of these "enhancement' devices for many years.
I wonder if these techniques came into vogue during Mr. Levine's protracted absence. Although Maestro Levine is known as someone who avoids confrontation, it is hard for me to believe that he would allow such devices to be used under his rule.
Let us hope that sane minds will finally prevail among the board members of the Metropolitan Opera and that the major donors who faithfully cover box office losses will demand a return to "traditional" management that will once again produce one operatic masterpiece after another. This standard has been met for decades under General Managers such as Mr. Bing and Mr.Volpe without resorting to questionable high tech not designed for opera houses or those who love opera the way it should be performed, by highly trained performers whose natural voices can reach the upper rows of the Family Circle without voice enhancement' from electronic devices. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 03 2014 09:54 AM
af from Nassau County, Long Island

Amplification?!?!?! At the Met?!?!?!

Jan. 03 2014 02:44 AM
Seth Roth from Manhattan

Any music critic who avows enjoying the Nazi-flavored 2001 Salzburg Festival Fledermaus should have the decency to recuse himself from reviewing other Fledermaus performances.

Seth Roth

Jan. 02 2014 04:36 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Just another production in the long line of Peter Gelb "trash productions."
Keep it up Mr. Gelb, and once in a while when you walk out the front doors of The Met, look at the shuttered New York City Opera across the plaza and ask yourself if you are taking the Met (God forbid) in a similar direction.
Amplification, movie houses, what is next, organ grinders with monkeys holding tin cups for spare change from patrons to help the falling box office sales?
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 02 2014 03:39 PM

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