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

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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.