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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Opera Review: Bat-man Returns

The Met waltzes in 2014 with its new Fledermaus.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Watch this: Eisenstein (Christopher Maltman) woos Rosalinde (Susanna Philips) in Act II of Die Fledermaus.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The art of operetta came back to life last night at the Metropolitan Opera. On New Year's Eve, the company unveiled its eagerly anticipated new production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. The premiere, a glitzy gala occasion with many of the opera house's public areas roped off to accommodate A-list partygoers, proved to be an ebullient occasion, marking the return of this beloved work to the grand stage. This was a new production by Jeremy Sams, with glittering sets by Robert Jones.

Unlike some previous attempts to update the operetta, the new libretto (in English, with aria texts by Mr. Sams and dialogue by Broadway scribe Douglas Carter Beane) retained the core plot of the show. That plot is an elaborately planned revenge by Doctor Falke (Paulo Szot) upon his friend and drinking buddy, the bourgeois Gabriel von Eisenstein (Christopher Maltman). The hi-jinks (and bad jokes) were couched handsomely in settings that recalled the gold-flecked art of Gustav Klimt. In updating the action to New Year's Eve, 1899, Mr. Sams and Mr. Beane were able to filter this work through a 21st century sensibility of sex and social mores, connecting with their audience and making this venerable operetta relevant again.


The glittering sets framed a game, sparkling cast, performing with more energy than is usually associated with Fledermaus. Leading the charge: soprano Susanna Philips who was both radiant and very funny as Rosalinde, the wife of Eisenstein who disguises herself as a Hungarian countess in order to trap her wayward husband. Ms. Philips used her agile instrument to tremendous effect in the Act I scenes with Alfred (Michael Fabiano) and Adele (Jane Archibald), displaying comic chops that may have been the result of careful direction. She brought down the house with an emotionally charged Act II Czárdás, delivering this famous aria with an emotional wallop.

Like the amorous Alfred, Mr. Fabiano is a talented artist whose career has not yet found its groove. This may prove a breakout role for the young tenor. Whether singing nostalgic duets with Ms. Philips or warbling Donizetti from his jailhouse bunk, he sang with pliant, lyric tone, never failing to be sweet and eminently listenable. Mr. Maltman's Eisenstein lacked a great tune to sing, but the baritone was both a strong comic lead and a straight foil to the rest of the cast. (There were exceptions, like his mangled attempts to speak French in the second act.) As Falke, baritone Paulo Szot gleefully chewed the scenery as he managed the characters into position and received the equivalent of a pie in the face at the opera's denouement.

Ms. Archibald's soprano was high and tight as Adele, but the soubrette personality suited her perfectly. She delivered most of Act II with an (appropriately) atrocious Russian accent, but sang marvelously in "My dear Marquis."  Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was perfect casting as Prince Orlovsky, fey and slightly crazed with a voice that soared even higher than Ms. Archibald's. His perpetual boredom provided a tiresome secondary plot thread. Throughout the opera, he was was accompanied by the stolid comic presence of Jason Simon, making the Met debut as Ivan, Orlovsky's bodyguard and "Russian bear."

The third act featured the very fine performance of Patrick Carfizzi as Frank, the jailor whose sudden turn to theatrical production (he ended the operetta planning a musical comedy based on Crime and Punishment recalled the best work of Mr. Max Bialystock. Adding to the sense of shtick as Danny Burstein, making his house debut as the comic jailer Frosch. Tasked with entertaining the theater with his Act III monologue, Mr. Burstein promptly shattered the fourth wall, including digs at income inequality that quickly won the loyalty of the opera die-hards (this reviewer included) perched in the Family Circle.

Adam Fischer led a bustling performance that did not drag, even with the addition of an energetic "clock" ballet (set to Strauss' Trisch-Trasch Polka in the middle of the very long second act. The conductor kept things moving along. The always game Met chorus were a welcome presence, filling out the sound and the giant ballroom set. But all this glitz paled next to the third act. When Eisenstein and Rosalinde confronted each other in the jail, their extracurricular adventures and marital difficulties were resolved in a very modern, honest way in Mr. Beane's libretto. In an evening of frivolity, this was a very real, human moment, and a satisfying way to end the work.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.