The Metropolitan Opera is overflowing with flat champagne these days, with the premiere of a new production of the 1874 Viennese operetta Die Fledermaus in which its bubbly, lively qualities have been severely extinguished thanks to amateurish and boorish new dialogue from playwright Douglas Carter Beane, substandard singing, uneven conducting and an unimaginative staging.
The Met tends to stay away from works of musical theater and even many 19th century operettas, including the hits of Gilbert and Sullivan, for good reason: In a space so large, it is difficult to do a silly comedy well and sometimes impossible to understand spoken dialogue. The rare exception is Johann Strauss Jr.’s richly melodic and waltz-filled Die Fledermaus, which has not been seen at the Met for nearly a decade but used to be revived regularly around the holidays. The Met’s famous 1950 staging was helmed by no less than Garson Kanin and Howard Dietz. In Otto Schenk’s 1980s production, a star vocalist such as Barbara Cook would often make a cameo appearance.
Set on New Year’s Eve, it revolves around the farcical shenanigans of a married man and woman (Christopher Maltman and Susanna Phillips) who, without telling each other, plan to attend an opulent ball in disguise, unaware that their actions are secretly be orchestrated by a close friend of the man (Paulo Szot) who seeks revenge for a past humiliation.
Jeremy Sams scored a hit at the Met two seasons ago with The Enchanted Island, which freely combined bits of Baroque opera into a new piece based on The Tempest. His production of Die Fledermaus, which updates the setting to New Year’s Eve in 1899 and is performed in English, is not marred by the kind of self-conscious directorial choices that have consumed so many classic operas in recent years. The sets for acts one and three are unusually tiny and confined, but designer Robert Jones really goes to town for the festive ballroom party in act two, supplying a golden dome and towering chandelier.
For the most part, this revival is marred by the new dialogue provided by Beane (The Nance, Xanadu), which indulges in flamboyant and ethnic humor and musical theater references (The Sound of Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber, even Follies) and largely falls flat on its face. There is so much dialogue, in fact, that the opera runs nearly four hours, unreasonably long for any sort of comedy. His choice to portray the lead couple as assimilated Jews is strange, and a veiled reference to the Holocaust is inappropriate.
In addition to the book problems, the singing is unusually subpar for the Met and the orchestra lacked spark. Many have speculated that the necessity of having to learn the new English dialogue and lyrics deterred more well-known vocalists from taking on major roles.
If you can manage to sit through the whole show, genuine comic relief arrives at the end from Broadway favorite Danny Burstein (The Drowsy Chaperone, South Pacific) as an inebriated jailer who will chat up the audience and make topical references. At one point, when he steps outside of a proscenium arch, he pauses and then gasps in amazement at how he just broke the fourth wall.
Szot, who won a Tony for the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, does his best to inject the flailing staging with some liveliness in a supporting role, and Betsy Wolfe (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) gives an aimless and anxious performance as an actress-socialite who reeks of desperation.