The post-Napoleonic nineteenth-century witnessed a steady train of spoiled Russian nobles traveling to western Europe in search of solace from the disease of "holy melancholy," an osmosis of culture and a place to squander great wealth. Receiving them was an effete aristocracy that welcomed the barbarians partly out of curiosity, but mostly out of eagerness for someone to pick up the tab in their increasingly impoverished salons.
This is only one of many Viennese/Parisian circumstances satirized in Johann Strauss' homage to unadulterated silliness, Die Fledermaus. But it is the least lost on those who run the Metropolitan Opera House.
Met management has long exploited the waltz-soaked operetta as a cash cow. The formula, in use for almost a century now, is simple: assemble a cast of relatively recognizable opera names, supplement it with nonsinging celebrities from more popular walks of entertainment, stick the bubbly sheet music on the stands of the exquisite professionals in the orchestra pit, then rake in the lucre from semi-literate hordes who would never cross bridge or traverse tunnel for an evening of Katya Kabanova.
The lofty rationale, of course, is that well-attended, popular, common-denominator productions such as these make possible the staging of daring, little-known works by such as Janacek. It is the same justification used in support of those long thick boxes that make the side galleys look like a junkyard and reduce everyone's view of the stage. And yet, though the singing was performed in German, dialogue was delivered in English. Doubtless this was not because we are not trusted to be able to read our screens, but in order that we may more closely engage ourselves in the banter on the stage.
And if you spent your spondulics on a high-priced opera ticket to hear banter, you certainly got your money's worthact one, in fact, contained very little music. But if, like me, you can be casually entertained watching Beavis & Butthead at home and expect something more rarefied at Lincoln center, this production could be excruciating. First of all, the dialogue was supposed to be funny. Yet although it is traditional to take great liberties in updating the script in this operetta, most of the humor was lame. And much was too overtly reaching, such as the many "inside" opera jokes. For example, two Germans, each pretending to be French and each convinced the other is French, are invited to converse in their native tongue. After trading names of foods back and forth, one hums an air from Aida, and the other responds, "Ah, Carmen!" The audience howled. But I wondered, were they laughing because this was really funny, or to prove to their neighbors that they got the jest?
The problem is compounded (and/or caused?) by the fact that the performers are wonderful opera singers, but (with a notable exception) definitely not professional comics, and they deliver their comic lines in a monotonous singsong with absolutely no sense of timing. Wolfgang Brendel, as Eisenstein, was better than the rest, and worked particularly well with John Del Carlo's warden Frank. Impressive (vocal) debuts were scored by Janet Williams as the flighty maid and Russell Braun as Dr Falke (a psychiatrist who specializes in people whom Sigmund Freud considers too nuts for treatment, hardy har har). Alfred, the lampoon of the Italian tenor, is one of opera's more unchallenging roles: if he's good he's good, if he's not, well, he's not supposd to be. Neil Rosenshein was in between.
The star of the evening was June Anderson. Though perhaps the worst comedienne, she made a radiant presence on stage in Peter J. Hall's Hungarian princess costume and was ravishing when allowed to do what she does best, i.e., sing. A performer of her caliber is wasted in this operetta, but the formula requires star power. Still, she deserves better. After scoring success upon success in houses all over the world, her Met season was confined to Donizetti's Marie and this Rosalinde. Perhaps she needs a new New York agent, and perhaps that's why she has no Met performances scheduled for next season.
The level of satisfaction improved in the second act along with the proportion of music to repartee, with the big waltz numbers livening things up considerably. Günther Schneider-Siemssen's sets were most pleasing and effective, providing elegance without ostentation. But the big hit of the act was Prince Orlofsky, whose trousers were filled by someone accustomed to wearing them. Imagine hearing a young Marilyn Horne, then looking up at the stage and seeinga guy! Jochen Kowalski looks like a man, talks like a man, but sings like an alto; not a countertenor, not in falsetto, but a true male alto. And it's not just a noveltythe man's got pipes. His acting was also impressive, although, to be fair to the other cast members, his role mainly required him to pretend that nothing happening around him was particularly amusing, which could not have been much of a stretch.
Nature herself frowned upon the Met's philistinistic designs by dumping a blizzard's worth of snow that evening and stranding the major part of the potential audience in their driveways. She also complicated my social life, leaving me without a date. Even so, there was a bright side. No one else showed up in my box, and I can highly recommend the experience of having an entire Grand Tier box all to yourselfyou can push the unused chairs into the corners, settle down in the middle, stretch out like a proper pasha and really relax. Moreover, champagne is much more affordable when buying for one.
Which leads us to Dom DeLuise, who played the jailer Frosch. According to the "Meet the Artists" section of the Stagebill, the Andersons and the Brendels have appeared in the major international opera houses, while "Mr DeLuise has appeared in such films as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run." Obviously, he's not a singer; obviously, he's a professional comic, and it showed. The previous two acts could not have provided a better set-up for his skills. He began the third act with a ten-minute stand-up routine, then waddled around for the remainder, ad-libbing and generally making fun of everyone else. After all the amateur tomfoolery on the part of people who sing for a living, it was more than a relief to observe a true professional at work. Even when his wisecracks were too obvious, the timing, pacing and delivery made them hilarious.