by Suzanne Vanstone, Senior Communications Manager, Editorial at the Canadian Opera Company
Die Fledermaus has not been seen by COC audiences since 1991, so we are very excited to bring a new production of Johann Strauss II’s intoxicating concoction to our stage. Although this is a piece chock full of madcap antics, mistaken identities and charming waltzes, it is also infused with dark humour and human foibles. Our creative and musical team explores all these aspects to offer a fresh perspective on Strauss’s popular operetta. COC Music Director Johannes Debus and director Christopher Alden take inspiration from each other.
Christopher Alden (The Flying Dutchman, Rigoletto) emphasizes, “Fledermaus will be fun! It’s a famous, beloved piece and not just because of the totally brilliant and inspired music or that it’s a frivolous New Year’s Eve entertainment, but it’s a wonderful story with great characters and situations that resonate with audiences down through the ages. It has a lot to say about society, relationships and marriage.
“It has an amusing and resonant libretto and at the centre of it is a husband and wife (Eisenstein and Rosalinde), who both have their own separate fantasies that involve other people but also, as part of the plot, they woo each other in disguise and there is an erotic frisson to that. Their relationship reveals things that so many people sitting in the audience, happily married people, have experienced. It addresses it in a kind of crazy, wacky way, but also a rather potent way.”
Alden says that in addition to looking at marriage, the piece is very much about Vienna in and around that era, which started him thinking of therapist Sigmund Freud. “In a dreamy way, not in a very literal way, we are setting this production from the time the opera was written in mid-19th-century Vienna down through Freud’s Vienna and even a little bit beyond. It is about a marriage and what that couple goes through as the pendulum swings in their lives between fidelity and other feelings that they can’t help – desires, fantasies and dreams that are a part of everybody’s psyche.”
But Alden adds this is also a production about societal issues – inspired by Freud and his focus on both the conscious and unconscious levels. It is the balance and imbalance between the private and the public personas that determine the life of a society or civilization. Similar to the marriage pendulum, societies swing between creative and suppressive phases. “During the decades around Strauss, the Austro-Hungarian world was such a wealth of creativity and laissez-faire politics culminating in an amazing era before WWI where Vienna was a hotbed of inspiration. But that led to a more repressive era in the years leading up to WWII. We are exploring those kinds of themes in this production especially because the last act of the piece takes place in a prison.”
The central protagonist in this production is Dr. Falke. In the opera, Eisenstein had abandoned a drunken Falke, dressed as a bat, in the town square. Falke awoke humiliated and in order to exact revenge on his friend some months later, he arranges for Rosalinde and Eisenstein to attend Prince Orlofsky’s party. Through disguise and deceit, Falke enjoys making the situation as uncomfortable as possible. “He is a bit like Dr. Freud trying to unlock the repressed side of people and exposing their sexuality.
“Act I takes place in the Eisenstein bedroom. It has a dark, 19th-century Victorian feel – a large marriage bed surrounded by heavy wallpaper. The bed remains a fixture throughout the opera. Here Rosalinde tries to find the balance in her life between reality and desire. I was very inspired by reading Freud and how he dealt with women existing in a ‘proper’ bourgeois marriage. How does a woman find a balance between that and being her own person? When Dr. Falke enters the room the walls crack open – a crack in the repression. The old world opens up and the upstage realm starts to ooze out the dreams, desires, and fantasies that come to life in the party in Act II.”
Alden has set Act II, Prince Orlofsky’s home, ahead a bit in time to a beautiful art deco, 1920s fantasy space with a gorgeous, gigantic staircase and a large, white grand piano. The party is rather like an exotic slumber party – all the guests are in erotic attire with men and women challenging gender roles. In this dreamlike atmosphere, the conscious world gives way to the libido as the characters become more embroiled.
“At the end of the second act the police come in and close the party down – rather like the time between World War I and II when the more repressive element came in and started shutting down all that creativity. Then in Act III we are suddenly back in a restrictive place, the prison, where all of these decadent people are being held for questioning by the authorities. It has come full circle from where we started in Act I.”
This is the first time that Johannes Debus is conducting Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and, like Alden, he wants to get rid of certain clichés and present the piece to our audiences in a renewed, vibrant way. “Fledermaus is wonderful – it’s a very Viennese piece and speaks the Viennese dialect. Starting with all the waltzes the entire piece is festive – be it at the ball or in the prison. We hear the music in a series of dances – it might be a waltz, a polka, a quadrille, a gavotte – all the dances that were very popular at that time.”
Debus says the piece is full of traditions or habits – we all seem to know it and have heard the famous tunes, overture, and so on. But over the years the many traditions have often become a little bit perverted in style. He says, “For instance, there might be a little ritenuto (decrease of tempo) at one point in the music and musicians in Strauss’s time performed this correctly, but 10 years later it became longer, 20 years later even longer, and eventually turned into a fermata (full pause)! We want to bring it back to basics.
“Often we see Fledermaus as a piece of divertissement, just some light entertainment, and yet it is the most artfully written piece. You can compare it with Le nozze di Figaro, Rosenkavalier, Lulu and so on. It has the same quality of drama and of music – we have to take it very seriously. So often you hear very bad performances where people are just shouting and it becomes vulgar. That is not the piece. There are so many nuances and so much subtlety which I would like to try to find with our cast. I am pretty sure with Christopher’s approach it will be easier for me to treat the music precisely and with great care.
“Operetta was a sort of singspiel which means opera with dialogue. But operetta can be as tragic as opera, as comical as opera, as dramatic as opera. And Fledermaus is full of black humour. And certainly we see this at the ball where characters are masked. It’s a wonderful dramaturgical trick – some protagonists act more authentically with their masks than they do in their real life. There is always this double entendre and slightly erotic component. You are allowed to act on your desires… nobody knows who you are.”
Debus certainly wants the audience to enjoy and have fun with Fledermaus. But he also wants them to feel slightly uncomfortable from time to time. “Feel that double standard in society, and the abyss which lies under this delirium, represented by the constant turning of the waltzes. In the music there seems to be a fear of emptiness and you have to fight a bit against the emptiness. It’s almost an obsession. The characters want to forget their reality and they reach this state of near-hysteria, a society dancing on the edge of ruin.
“It teeters on the rim of the volcano. We know there was the stock exchange crash the year before Fledermaus was written. Vienna was the large financial centre at that time in Europe and there was a lot going on. Then the market crashed and people lost everything. Christopher connects it with Sigmund Freud which is completely right – Freud appears just a couple of years later. The music is a bit of an escape. It’s also interesting that Die Fledermaus was one of the last pieces that the Vienna Staatsoper played in 1941 before the house was bombed. And they also started playing it at the New Year’s Eve concerts during that time. It was an aid in forgetting – something narcotic, an anesthetic.
“The music has such a freshness and offers so many incredibly beautiful melodies. It possesses great elegance, yet is enormously subtle, and is so well written for the orchestra. I look forward immensely to conducting this piece. It’s a great pleasure, a great delight to perform.
This article is published in our Fall 2012 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) Ambur Braid as Adele; (middle) Christopher Alden; (middle) Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde, Michael Schade as Gabriel von Eisenstein and Ambur Braid as Adele; (middle) Johannes Debus; (bottom) David Pomeroy as Alfred, James Westman as Frank and Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde. Photos: (top) Chris Hutcheson; (middle) Dario Acosta; (middle) Chris Hutcheson; (middle) Rider Dyce; (bottom) Michael Cooper.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001