Satire is tough to pull off in opera. Die Fledermaus, we are told, is really a sly spoof of 19th century Vienna’s decadent party-hopping upper crust. But to present-day audiences lacking such a point of reference, it just looks like a bunch of rich white people mincing around in silly costumes. Which is pretty much how most people think of opera as a whole. How do you tell the parody from the normal excesses of the genre?
A good director can finesse this. A lazier director will trade in the satire for bad puns. Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”), Johann Strauss’ famous operetta (you’ve heard it, even if you haven’t seen it staged) was never particularly highbrow, but director Dorothy Danner has brought it down a few more notches. This is largely thanks to an English translation that takes liberties with the original German, so that we can experience such exchanges as “Go answer the door.” “But he hasn’t asked me anything.” Or “Do you speak Russian?” “Only when I’m in a hurry.” Corny jokes abound in this production, which recalls Jonathan Miller’s deliberate mistranslations of Così fan tutte for the Washington National Opera last season. But if that was Mozart through eyes of a smartass Brit, this is Strauss through the eyes of Garrison Keillor.
Fortunately there were apparently a lot of Prairie Home Companion fans in the crowd on Friday who ate that stuff up. It would be more forgivable if all these cheesy asides didn’t push the final product past the three-hour mark. Danner introduces the drunken jailer in the third act cleverly enough—-“Don’t you hate characters who show up in the third act of an opera, go on and on about something that has nothing to do with the plot, and then disappear?” he remarks, before disappearing—-but then he reappears and continues to go on and on, stretching out the bit like a Saturday Night Live skit that doesn’t know when to end.
The music might have made up for the uneven humor if it wasn’t so uneven itself. Strauss’ mix of waltzes and polkas is filled with bouncy oompahs and mischievous themes that stick in your head. But the opening overture fell flat under the sloppy woodwinds and anemic strings, and it took a while for the orchestra to get its act together. Although conductor Gary Thor Wedow should be credited for improvising an encore following an unexpected scenery mishap that had to be cleaned up.
At least the singing is enjoyable, particularly soprano Emily Pulley as Rosalinde, who conspires to embarrass her womanizing husband Eisenstein (baritone Philip Cutlip), along with a friend who is also seeking revenge for a prank involving a bat costume (don’t ask). Eisenstein, who is due in jail on some white-collar criminal charge, instead goes to a fancy ball, and proceeds to hit on every woman in sight, including his wife and maid Adele, both in disguise. Sarah Jane McMahon, as Adele, gives her vain character a bright, fluttery soprano, but lacks in projection. Mezzo Abigail Nims stands out in the minor role of fake Russian prince Orlovsky, simply by delivering her arias well with a ridiculous Boris Badenov accent.
For all its pretty waltzes, Die Fledermaus is already a pretty dumb opera that doesn’t need to be dumbed down any more. In its press release, George Mason’s Center for the Arts promises a “dazzling work..filled with gorgeous waltzes, sophisticated humor and memorable melodies.” To quote fellow bat-inspired composer Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad.
Die Fledermaus closes on Sunday at 2 p.m. at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. In English with surtitles. $48 – $98. (888) 945-2468.
Photo by David A. Beloff