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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Las Burbujitas del Bat Manuel: Lyric Opera's Die Fledermaus

I'd swear at some point I'd put all my opera dates into the calendar on the Wiki, but apparently not. My punishment for such slacking was to attend Die Fledermaus solo. Normally, I would have held M to his word about going with me when I needed a companion, but that seemed churlish, given the fact that it was I who gave him the marvelous cold/cough he's got. For the record: Cosi Fan Tutte, Feb. 10; Dialogues of the Carmelites, Mar. 17.

Richard Traubner's essay rather skimps on the pomposity this time around, but it makes up for it with interesting history and context. He starts with a quote from The Batman himself (no, not that one, the opera one):
Glücklish ist, wer vergißt
was doc nicht zu ändern ist!

I'm more apt to confuse my unrelated classical Strausses, yet at the remove of more than 20 years I can still probably tell you the shoe size of each of the three unrelated Taylors of Duran Duran (and Power Station, of course), so I appreciated Traubner's setting the stage of Vienna in April, 1874, when Die Fledermaus debuted. In the aftermath of a stock market crash and a failed World's Fair, Vienna was in the mood for some tiny bubbles of entertainment, and JS, Jr. delivered.

The story is really the height of cleverness. The plot is very nearly as ridiculous as that of Il trovatore (nearly, I said, and without the melodrama), but the coincidences have all been orchestrated by the titular chiropteran. The libretto is brilliant, allusion heavy, and eminently portable. Traubner notes that Le réveillon, the vaudeville from which the story is descended, was itself the "Parisianized" descendant of a German play, and that Genée's libretto itself has spawned a filmed ballet (Oh Rosalinda! by Powell and Pressburger, who brought us The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman and an English-language version by W. S. Gilbert, who certainly brings cleverness street cred to the party. Martin Gantner, who sang Dr. Falke in Lyric's production, further notes that in his native Bavaria, eschewing Viennese accents (do not taunt happy, fun Bayerischen) transforms the operetta entirely. And if I may elevate this discussion to loftier heights, I'd add that the "Great Money Caper" episode of The Simpsons (WIlly wasnae!) is an homage to the comeuppance overkill of Die Fledermaus.

Strauss was more than up to the challenge of setting Genée's pre-Whedeonesque libretto to music. Traubner notes that Die Fledermaus received almost universal kudos from the media when it debuted. However, one dissenter who had already been through the painful nowning process, Eduard Hanslick, dissed it as "a potpourri of waltz and polka motifs." Hey asshole, it's potpourri of waltz and polka motifs from Mozart. And Verdi. And Rossini. And Gounod. And it RAWKS.

Before I'd even gotten to the crew blurbs and realized that this production shared a stage director with last year's Der Rosenkavalier, I'd noted a number of similar design elements and sensibilities. The direction was outstanding. A few of the performers noted some anxiety over the amount of dialogue required of them, but you wouldn't know it from the audience. The dialogue snapped along, the blocking was flawless, the pacing of entrances, exits, and delivery of lines was top notch.

The set design for Act I was marvelous. In fact, it was as if the same set designer from Der Rosenkavalier had distilled the lavish beauty into a non-sound-sucking ideal. The back wall rose to the full height of the proscenium and was covered with wallpaper with a dense pattern in rose and olive. It was something along these lines, but somehow managed to suggest the hideous, crammed nature so dear to this era without being entirely eye searing. I'm reminded at this point of Sara Vowell's Assassination Vacation in which she writes of her long-anticipated visit to Lincoln's house in Illinois. She'd been expecting to be strongly moved by the experience and ended up being strongly persuaded that that was one seriously ugly interior design job. An employee at the museum noted that the house really reflected Mary Todd Lincoln more than Himself, and that no one escaped the claustrophobia of Victorian decoration.

Thus the trick that the wallpaper pulled off was a neat one that was neatly replicated in the rest of the design. Rather than doing the mandatory patterned carpet, Ulisse Santicchi strategically layered and overlapped area rugs to give the floor the impression of being busy and cluttered without the acoustic ramifications. Similarly, the furniture pieces (a piano, a pot-bellied, carved atrocity of a mantel with awful lamps, a couch with so many throw pillows that they must have gotten supernumerary wages, a divan, and an extremely poofy ottoman) were so carefully chosen and placed that they gave the impression of imminent suffocation by doily, but left room for a considerable amount of energetic dancing and no voice eating whatsoever. None of the pictures is great, but this probably gives the best sense of things.

My only complaint with the Act I design was the real mirror over the mantle. Mirrors on stage are a nightmare, and this nightmare was multiplied a million times over in the Act II set. (Please, pause to dig that HIDEOUS gilded buffet. It was awesome in the literal sense of the word.) I truly do appreciate the goal of having light bounce around the party, making it seem larger and more glittering than life. But the warping effects of mirrors that large viewed at a distance is just too large a liability.

I liked other things about the set (which reminded me of the best elements of the design of Lyric's Un Ballo Maschera from 2001), like the round sofas (I feel certain that there's another name for this type of furniture, but damned if I know it. You can just see it in the lower right-hand corner here) in scarlet velvet, which provided a venue for some great splashy musical choreography. The white flooring was about equal parts hit and miss. It gave the room a great feeling of conspicuous consumption, as if Prince Orlofsky might just dispose of the whole thing in the morning, but the shadows cast by the overhead chandeliers made it appear dirty, and the dozens of well-shod feet made it actually dirty in all likelihood.

Speaking of the overhead lighting, the decision to swag a few folds of drapery just upstage of the proscenium was a rather weird one. The chandelier was only partly visible through it, and thus the dirty carpet syndrome seemed more mysterious. Part of the drapery was lowered during von Eisenstein's flirtation with the "Hungarian Countess," which gave the scene more intimacy (and gave the white-wigged servants some leeway in setting up the dining table), but I would have ditched it on the grounds that it created more issues than it resolved.

The Act III set is necessarily sort of an anticlimax, being set in the local jail. Still, it was a attractive, airy anticlimax with good attention to detail. The floors were lovely sanded wood, and the upstage half was a platform raised about four feet above downstage with steps leading down at both stage right and left. The upstage wall had doors leading to 4 or 5 cells, and the main, barred door led in at upstage right. There was another exit with swinging double doors (that was a weird false note as it looked like it led to a kitchen) at downstage right, and in between the two entrances, there was hanging set of pigeonholes for mail, a coat rack, and a huge portrait of Franz Josef.

Frank's (the Warden) desk was set at a slight angle to the wall at right and had a chair on either side. The downstage left wall had cells 12 and 13 which held Alfred (in disguise as a singing von Eisenstein) and, eventually, Ida and Adele. In her blurb, lighting designer August Tye notes that it's important that the lighting convey the scene's daybreak setting. She did a lovely job as her design managed to make people look hungover, radiant, or some combination of the two, as appropriate. I will note, however, that I also thought that daylight was pouring in through the french doors in Act I, but it must have been the world's most powerful gas street lamp.

The costume design (also by Santicchi) unsurprisingly worked well with the set. Rosalinde's pinker-than-pink Norma Desmond dressing gown for Act I deserved a credit all its own. The fez and dressing gown combo looked dashing on von Eisenstein and ridiculous on Alfred, as required. The metallic, jewel-toned gowns of the supers in Act II was the perfectly glossy, upper-crust backdrop for both Adele's pink on pink and Ida's periwinkle. Similarly, Rosalinde's blood-red-and-black, corset-topped number was a believable disguise sandwiched between the aforementioned flight-capable dressing gown and the extreme frumpage of her dusty rose ruffled atrocity for Act III. There's not much to say on the men's costumes, of course. They were dashing in their tails, and the climactic title cape was striking enough without being too too.

I liked the nonspecifically exotic flavor of the ballet performers' costumes eventually, although I'd initially had my doubts about the bloomers on the women. I still don't understand why Prince Orlofsky precognitively invited a troupe of Hungarian back-up peasants for Rosalinde's czárdás, but their off-the-shoulder peasant tops and the colorful profusion of petticoat ruffles on the pinned-up sides of the dresses were quite striking.

In terms of performances, I must begin with Marlis Petersen (Adele). I'm not ready to admit to having a coloratura girlfriend just yet, but she certainly has done for my opinion of coloraturas what Giordano Massimo did for tenors. From the very first shriek that propels her on to the stage, she was a delight. Her acting was charming, her comic timing impeccable, and voice was bright, warm and glided gracefully through some impressive passages. She also had absolutely marvelous, expressive body language. In Act II when she and Ida resort to exchanging blows, she had this hilariously sinuous way of faking having just taken a punch, and her movement during her "Laughing Song" ideally conveyed a bumpkin parlor maid playing at being a sophisticated actress. When she effortlessly fell into a split, I couldn't help thinking of James Marsters describing how he and everyone else on the set just lost it when it was revealed that Sarah Michelle Gellar, on top of everything else she did effortlessly, turns out to be able to juggle. I note from her blurb:
"When you're able to forget about the notes and just get into the character, the notes of Adele come very easily."

To this I say (along with her cast mates, I'm sure): Uber-talented BITCH. As Ida, Lauren Curnow got to show off more of her acting than her singing, but she does admirably considering that she has to live up to Petersen's Adele.

Bo Skohvus (von Eistenstein) and Andrew Shore (Frank) come next in my estimation. Skohvus is such a lech and such a child, and yet one still couldn't help being charmed by him. He and Shore worked brilliantly against one another during the introduction of Marquis Renard to Chevalier Chagrin. Their "French off" was magnificent. Skohvus also played extremely well off Peterson and adapted well both vocally and dramatically to Andrea Rost (Rosalinde), who was quite different than the rest of the cast.

Rost played Micaela last year in the Denyce Graves cast of Carmen. We, of course, saw Patricia Racette in this role. Their voices have similar qualities to them, although as Rosalinde, it's possible that Rost was playing up the vibrato for comic, melodramatic purposes. It's also possible, based on her blurb, that the melodrama is built in:
A young singer needs a good singing teacher. If I'd chosen repertoire myself, I could possibly have gone in the wrong direction, since singers can't hear what they sound like. My singing teacher assessed my voice as a lyric soprano with distinct ability in coloratura. I certainly sing colortura parts, but as I proceed I must be careful to retain my voice's ease and color.

When she and Petersen were first singing together, I quite enjoyed her work; thereafter, though, she took on some of the more ponderous qualities that make Racette not my favorite. I should also disclose that Rost, while certainly funny as Rosalinde, wasn't quite up to the rapid pace of the rest of the cast. Her czárdás had all the required fire, but it was a slow-burning fire with a bit too much consciousness that the audience will wait for the diva. She reminded me in this regard of Kim Crosby's performance in the Broadway version of Into the Woods. It's a recording I love, but I never hear it without wanting to take a cattle prod to Crosby as she drags through yet another contribution to a snappy ensemble number.

Bonnaventura Bottone (English. Can you believe that?) seems to have been totally on board with sacrificing his ego to character as Alfred. He's a skilled tenor in the Pavoratti style, and he has no problem mocking that style mercilessly. He also sparkles opposite Andrew Shore's Frank in the whirlwind Act I finale. Martin Gantner as Dr. Falke made the most of what is really his one big number in Act I, and he and Skohvus had chemistry to rival that of Skohvus/Shore. Why is it, though, that the title character always has so little singing to do. Granted, he was busy as hell, bending time and space to retroactively inform everyone of his revenge plot. Still, I'd have liked to hear more of him, especially given how rare it is to have three delicious baritones in one opera.

Alice Coote had the trouser role of Prince Orlofsky and she handled the acting well, playing him as an androgynous young man who is deliberately trying to act more manly and worldly than anyone would ever buy. In her opening vocal salvo, she elaborated on that with an odd but effective approach whereby she kind of snatched at the top notes, evoking a boy whose voice is changing. It was curiously appealing. Her later singing was more straight-up mezzo. It was fine enough, but I just wasn't a fan of the material for the role.

Dennis Petersen (no relation to Marlis, one assumes) didn't particularly distinguish himself as the stuttering Dr. Blind, but then again a stutterer is a crappy role to have to play. As he points out, the character is at home with his litany of legal terms in Act I, and he conveyed that well vocally. I think I just resented the ding to pacing that the stuttering bit represents, which isn't fair to the performer.

Rounding out the cast, Bryan Griffin was mostly notable for his Dr. Evil costume, his Tom Baker Hair, and Yukon Cornelius beard. That's not fair either: He deserves credit for maintaining his dignity amid all of that as Orlofsky's majordomo, Ivan. Seriously, this just wasn't much of a role for him. Fred Wellisch had the only purely speaking part as Frosch the Barney Fife-esque jailer. He has to carry a lot of the comedy in Act III, linking the various visitors together and moving them about. I thought he did a swell job with what amounts to a long monologue that could get tiresome in a hurry, but the act did drag somewhat. (Heh, and yet I note that John von Rhein says it's been "cut to the bone.)

In a Lyric opera first, the orchestra seemed to represent something of a liability. The overture is marvelous, and they were marvelous in performing it. However, there were a number of times when different sections seemed to be missing cues or those on stage had jumped in too soon. I don't know if the blame can be placed on Asher Fisch, the Israeli guest conductor and his attitude that
You can't impose style on the music — you have to let it happen, and you have to relax.
.

It's been a while since I've been in my regular seats on my regular night, having exchanged tickets for everything but opening night so far. The first balcony was certainly packed. In fact, the seat next to me may have been the only open one visible. There was hearty laughter and applause throughout, accompanied by a very pleased and up vibe in the crowd during both intermissions. As I exited the opera house to head Kaga-ward (have I mentioned that I scored free street parking a block away?), though, I managed to be alongside Ranty McRantPerson, who declared that if he'd known that Act III was going to be so bad, he'd have gone to get the car. And thus balance was brought to the force.

I was a part of the unwashed majority, pretty much point for point on this production, if my internal applause meter is to be trusted. The crowd went wild for Petersen and a touch less wild for Skohvus and Shore. Rost had the last curtain call and the reception was cooler for her. When she beckoned Fisch on the stage, there was a noticeable drop in temperature, suggesting that I was not the only one who thought that the second relaxing doobie passed around to the orchestra was doobie too far.

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