Monday, December 3, 2007

Going Batty

Communication is the essence of any theatrical enterprise, whether it be comic or tragic in nature. Unlike film and television -- which are taped -- live theatre is an art form which not only acknowledges the presence of its audience but must constantly struggle to keep the audience involved in the drama at hand. Under ideal circumstances a live operatic performance (which is, after all, a form of musical theatre) has a similar responsibility to keep its audience alert, attentive and entertained. And yet it doesn't happen all that often.

The recent advent of Supertitles has helped to make the operatic experience infinitely more accessible to the public and readers of this column know that I am an ardent fan of the new technology. Rarely do I attend a fully-staged operatic performance that does not benefit from the use of Supertitles. In many ways, these titles have supplanted the need to perform operas (most of which were originally written in foreign languages) in English. In fact, some operas which were written in English are now being performed with English-language Supertitles to ensure the highest quotient of communicability!

Certain works, because of their popular appeal, maintain a fairly steady presence in the repertoire and among these, Die Fledermaus is a perennial favorite with producers. Why? It is a handsome show to mount, easy to cast, and chock full of familiar tunes. This season alone, Strauss's Viennese charmer is being performed by professional opera companies in Chattanooga, Columbus, Detroit, Hartford, Kansas City, New York, Orange County, St. Paul, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Seattle, Toledo and Vancouver. And yet, how well Die Fledermaus will be performed and, more importantly, to what extent audiences might enjoy the piece, will vary widely from city to city.

Because the pacing and panache which are such critical elements of any production's success can vary so widely, one can never be sure what will happen during a performance of Die Fledermaus. It's a bit like attempting to cook a souffle: even an award-winning chef who uses the proper ingredients can never guarantee a total success.

Thus, in some cities, this tuneful operetta will be mounted with a great deal of charm and musicianship; in others it will go over like a lead balloon. No greater disparity could exist than what I witnessed in Lincoln Center last fall when both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera revived their Fledermaus productions in an attempt to bolster ticket sales. The contrast was not just bizarre; it was downright frightening.

Other than financial resources, why should there be such variance in the quality of production? Partially because different performing editions of Die Fledermaus are used by different opera companies. In those situations where the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation is used, the dramatic situation at the end of Act I clearly sets the stage for Rosalinda to make an appearance at Count Orlofsky's ball disguised as a Hungarian countess. In other editions, the audience is left completely in the dark as to why this lady has shown up and who invited her.

The moral of the story? Why stage a work which is subtitled "The Revenge of the Bat" if nobody in the audience understands the motive for revenge?


When New York City Opera's second string cast stepped into the company's production of Die Fledermaus last October, illness forced the talented Robert Orth to withdraw from the role of Eisenstein and conductor Imre Pallo's tempos left the rest of the cast gasping for breath. As a result, the performance I attended had a strange imbalance to it. My initial suspicion was that the new set of principals lacked sufficient rehearsal time. Yet, despite the slapdash, instant opera feeling of the performance, the audience had itself a reasonably good time.

Veteran Jack Harrold's hammy shtick as the drunken jailer Frosch drew hysterical screams of laughter from one woman in the audience (his wife?) which, as they echoed through the cavernous New York State Theatre became downright embarrassing. Special credit goes to petite Constance Hauman who, on the night of her Lincoln Center debut, suddenly found herself sliding across a wet spot on the stage floor during just before Adele's laughing song and landing flat on her ass. Although such an incident is the kind of performance nightmare which could unnerve a lesser artist, Hauman covered with enough verve and presence of mind to take full advantage of the line which was then fed to her by Prince Orlofsky in the Martin translation used by City Opera: "It's your debut as an actress -- make the most of it."

While Mark Beudert was an appealing Alfred, James Billings a pleasantly sneering Orlofsky and Richard McKee a jovial prison warden Frank, I was most impressed by soprano Elizabeth Holleque's performance as Rosalinda. A statuesque woman whose strong comedic skills and solid voice give her an Amazonian stage presence, Holleque has recently been making a name for herself in regional houses. I think she's quite an impressive talent and certainly someone who bears watching.


Across the plaza, the Metropolitan Opera presented an overblown version of Die Fledermaus which did its best to confuse and alienate the audience. Conductor Manuel Rosenthal's tempos were slow enough to resemble funeral dirges instead of Viennese waltzes and, for some perverse reason (perhaps looking for new ways to keep its aristocratic nose out of the Supertitle business) the Met chose to perform Strauss's comic operetta in a hopelessly ineffectual bilingual version whose dialogue was created by Otto Schenk and translated into English by Marcel Prawy.

To have the cast switching back and forth from singing Strauss's music in German to speaking Prawy's translation in what was, for the most part, totally incomprehensible English, proved to be a total waste of everyone's time. I found Otto Schenk's stage direction to be lax, leaden and ludicrous.

Although I enjoyed Barbara Daniels' full-voiced Rosalinda, David Rendall's Alfred and Barbara Kilduff's Adele, Tatiana Troyanos' Orlofsky struck me as being severely misdirected. Baritone Claudio Nicolai's Eisenstein was vocally and dramatically grating. Making his Metropolitan Opera debut as the drunken jailer, veteran comedian Sid Caesar was unintelligible, unfunny and plagued by an extremely poor sound system. Michael Devlin's Dr. Falke and Franz Mazura's warden Frank attempted to offer support but the majority of the evening was really a lost cause.

As is the case with so many recent Met performances, the audience responded enthusiastically to the company's frighteningly high quotient of shlock. Subscribers gushed over Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's gargantuan sets (which are mammoth but effective) and Peter J. Hall's elaborate costumes. Older members of the audience who watched Sid Caesar every week on "Your Show of Shows" during the 1950s doted on the aging comedian's incoherent mumbling. When the Met's turntable went into action in Act II, one could almost sense the audience shooting its wad in dumb admiration and, at that moment, any doubts I might have had about how well-informed the Met audience is were quickly put to rest.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 10, 1988.

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