La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 7 October 2012

COC Presents a Provocatively Original Die Fledermaus

COC  Die Fledermaus (l. to r.) Ambur Braid, Peter Barrett, James Westman, Laura Tucker (photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Johann Strauss II : Die Fledermaus
Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre
October 4, 2012

Michael Schade (Eisenstein)
Tamara Wilson (Rosalinda)
Ambur Braid (Adele)
David Pomeroy (Alfred)
Peter Barrett (Dr. Falke)
Laura Tucker (Prince Orlofsky)
James Westman (Frank)
David Cangelosi (Dr. Blind)
Claire de Sevigne (Ida)
Jan Pohl (Frosch)

Johannes Debus, conductor
Christopher Alden, director
Allen Moyer, set designer
Constance Hoffman, costume designer

by Joseph So

On Thursday evening, the ever-frothy Johann Strauss chestnut Die Fledermaus returned to the Canadian Opera Company after a long absence. Last seen in 1991 in an English translation near the end of the Brian Dickie era, it was an entirely traditional and also entirely forgettable production. Given that it is the 15th most popular opera in the the world, with a total of 285 performances worldwide the last six seasons according to statistics maintained by Operabase, it's high time for a revival. 

Unlike the generic treatment 21 years ago, this time around The Bat has received a complete makeover in the hands of stage director Christopher Alden.  Mr. Alden is no stranger to the COC, given his cutting edge productions of Rigoletto and Die fliegende Hollander for the Company. As with anything directed by him, this Fledermaus is provocative and edgy, challenging the notion that the good old Viennese operetta, like a good Kaffee, is best served mit Schlag - oh, and don't spare the sugar.  Snooping around the underbelly of the Viennese bourgeoisie, Alden's vision is unquestionably dark. But unlike the gratuitous - and much unloved - Hans Neuenfels production for Salzburg some years ago, Alden' concept expands the boundaries of the story through a nifty time-shifting to Vienna in the 1920's, the era of Freud and Psychoanalysis, and the rise of National Socialism. Dreams, nightmares, hypnosis and subconscious sexuality figure prominently - the long overture is turned into an erotic yet nightmarish dream by Rosalinda. Dr. Falke, transformed into a Dracula-like character complete with bat wings, hovers around controlling her at every turn. Adele the maid becomes a rather sinister figure, under the erotic control of Falke. The set design by Allen Moyer is handsome, uncluttered, yet strangely unsettling.  Act One is dominated by Rosalinda's bed and an oppressive wall paper pattern, Act Two by a staircase to nowhere, and Act Three by the grim-looking prison wall. Presiding throughout the opera is the gigantic pocket watch, suspended from the top of the stage. Given the psychological underpinnings of  this production, the sparseness works well, the downside of having Rosalinda sing her Csardas to an empty stage notwithstanding.    

An intriguing re-write involves Frank, the Prison Warden.  This minor role has been transformed into a newly liberated cross-dresser and a source of much merriment. It proves to be a star turn for Canadian baritone James Westman, a notable Sharpless, Germont and di Luna, all ultra-serious roles. His Frank shows an unexpected comic flair and it underscores the adage - slightly revised - that "there are no small roles, just small singers." The most significant departure in Alden's vision is in Act Three. With the firing of the pistols by the police, the arrest of all the party-goers and lining them up against the wall, the mood turns from frivolity to something much more somber and sinister, despite the antics of Frank, Alfred and company.  Given the dark undercurrents, many in the audience on opening night didn't quite know if they should laugh at some of the rather heavy-handed humor. Frosch's militaristic break-dancing routine, or Frank kissing him on the mouth drew mostly gasps or quiet giggles around me. The "blame it on the champagne" ending seems forced under the circumstances.  Hats off to Alden for coming up with a highly original vision, but there's no getting around the fact that comedy and fascism makes strange bedfellows.

If there are divided opinions about the production, musically opening night was a triumph. The voices were wonderful, led by the Rosalinda of Tamara Wilson who displayed a beautiful soprano with excellent coloratura and a secure top, all the way up to a C sharp in the Csardas. She was Amelia and Elettra previously for the COC, but Rosalinda is her best work yet.  She moved extremely well onstage and was fully up to the physical demands of the staging, including finishing the Csardas all the while climbing the steep staircase to the top. Michael Schade, a seasoned Alfred, sang his first Eisenstein, and it turned out to be a great role for his voice and his personality. David Pomeroy has just the right touch of tenorial pomposity to be a likable Alfred - and he seemed to enjoy showing off his voice in snippets from La traviata, Madama Butterly, even Fidelio!  As Adele, COC Ensemble Studio soprano Ambur Braid sang well and exuded star power. Her maid isn't a particularly lovable creature but it goes with the concept well.  The makeup department did such an amazing job on Peter Barrett (Dr. Falke) that he was all but unrecognizable if it weren't for his beautiful baritone. Kudos to Barrett for his high-wire act, something that would have struck fear in the hearts of every acrophobe.  

Ambur Braid (Adele) making her grand entrance in Act Two (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The big surprise was James Westman, returning to the COC as Frank, an essentially comprimario role. With the extensive re-write, Westman has turned this character to a starring role. Mezzo Laura Tucker, last heard at the COC eight years ago as one of the Valkyries in Die Walkure, made a welcome return as Orlofsky. Character tenor David Cangelosi also returned to the COC, this time as Dr. Blind, and Jan Pohl was a weirdly fascinating Frosch.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus is the right man for the job. Right from the opening bars of the very long overture, he conducted with energy and incisiveness, elegant in his phrasing, with every rubato in place but without schmaltzy sentimentality.  As usual, the COC chorus was marvelous, and they likely enjoyed wearing the fantastic costumes. Unlike 21 years ago, everything is in German this time, including extensive dialogues which everyone executed with aplomb and perfect diction, thanks to the good work of language coach Adi Braun.  Perhaps this production would not be the best choice for the Fledermaus newbies. However, for those old hands in this warhose, the directorial twist makes it so interesting that even Prince Orlofsky wouldn't have been bored.

Act Three (l. to r.) Tamara Wilson, Michael Schade, David Pomeroy (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Die Fledermaus opened October 4 with 10 more performances from Oct. 9 to Nov. 3 at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

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