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The Bat That Tore the Iron Curtain

Deutsche Oper
04/28/2018 -  & May 1, 5, 8, 29*, June 3, 8, November 18, 24, December 21, 26, 31, 2018, January 1, 3, 2019
Johann Strauss, jr.: Die Fledermaus
Thomas Blondelle*/Philipp Jekal/Burkhard Ulrich (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Annette Dasch*/Hulkar Sabirova/Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Rosalinde), Markus Brück*/Tobias Kehrer/Stephen Bronk (Frank), Angela Brower*/Jana Kurucová/Annika Schlicht (Prince Orlovsky), Enea Scala*/Robert Watson/Attilio Glaser (Alfred), Thomas Lehman*/Philipp Jekal/John Chest (Dr. Falke), Jörg Schörner*/Paul Kaufmann (Dr. Blind), Meechot Marrero/Nicole Haslett*/Alexandra Hutton (Adèle), Kathleen Bauer/Judith Shoemaker* (Ida), Florian Teichtmeister (Frosch), Samir Dib (Ivan), Openballett der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Jeremy Bines (Chorus Master), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles/Nikolas Maximilian Nägele*/Stephan Zilias (Conductor)
Rolando Villazón (Stage Director), Johannes Leiacker (Sets), Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (Costumes), Philippe Giraudeau (Choreography), Wieland Hilker & Dorian Häfner (Video), Davy Cunningham (Lighting), Lars Gebhardt (Dramaturgy)

(© Thomas M. Jauk)

It is a curiosity to see a Berlin production of this most Viennese of works. In the distant early and mid-nineteenth century, the two cities were rivals: the established cosmopolitan Vienna, jewel of the German-speaking world, and the parvenu Berlin, capital of the rising Kingdom of Prussia that would eventually end in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, resulting in the exclusion of Austria from Germany. Northern Germans have little patience with the intricate manners of Southern Germans and more specifically the Viennese. They prefer directness to complicated politeness to save face and preserve honour. However, Vienna’s manners were a necessity for a far different world from the Prussians’, as it was the most diverse city in Europe, with representatives of all peoples of the multi-lingual, multi-confessional Habsburg Empire. Rivalled only by Paris, Nineteenth Century Vienna was the epitome of modernity, as exemplified by such luminaries as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychology, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, whose Second Viennese School transformed Western music. There was also Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oscar Kokoschka, who revolutionized Western painting, satirist Karl Kraus whose wit had no rival, poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal who wrote the best German opera libretti, and writers Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler who best expressed the human condition in an age of uncertainty. Such an incredibly fecund city also had an established aristocracy and bourgeoisie who had to deal with the radical changes that came with their city’s modernism. White lies and intricate mannerisms were a necessity, not an affectation.

Given this history, it was no surprise to see that the main drive for the staging was to ridicule, albeit lovingly, the Viennese intricate art of subterfuge. The sets for the first Act were the most conventional: A Viennese apartment of the epoch with Biedermeier furniture. Dr. Falke appears as a magician arranging the furniture, turning on the electrical light (an allusion to modernity) and indicating his role as puppet-master of the farce we were to witness. A revolving stage took us from Act I, Eisenstein’s apartment, to Act II, Prince Orlovsky’s villa. The period was no longer fin-de-siècle Vienna but 1960’s East Berlin, a tantalizing homage to an emblematic period for the collective consciousness of Berlin. A potpourri of Eastern Bloc representatives filled the Orlovsky villa that looked more like a seedy dive from that gloomy period: uniformed Russian soldiers and officers, two Chinese or North Korean female soldiers that acted brutishly and comically as enforcers, short skirted women and a Cuban Rumbero trio that shook their behinds whenever the music inspired them. It took some time to adapt to this unusual and almost demented scenery. It had the makings of comedy, but remained an unsuccessful attempt at a living comic magazine through the simplified, over-exaggerated stereotypes. More disconcerting were the plethora of sexual perversions on stage: an allusion to the putrefied interior of a rigid exterior. This obviously parallels the double standards of late nineteenth century Vienna, where the comic-dramatic convulsions arise from society’s need to keep up appearances: Rosalinde’s not daring to reveal Alfred’s identity to the Prison Director coming to take charge of Eisenstein leads to the lovesick tenor’s arrest, and Adele’s lie regarding a dying aunt enabling her to attend Orlovsky’s ball, the fake Marquis Renard and Marquis Chagrin, and so on. The incongruity of a Russian Prince, a fake Hungarian Countess, two fake French Marquis in Communist East Berlin is obviously immaterial to the stage director.

More astonishing was the third Act’s setting: a ship in outer space. I must admit that this improbable setting worked well, in large part to the charm and charisma of Florian Teichtmeister as Frosch, the prison director’s assistant. This zany character, a spoken role, was actually a robot in this production. Often an unbearable amount of thick Viennese humour is de rigueur in this act, or worse, local humour and references are used to forcibly make the public laugh. The outer space context spared us from that, and Teichtmeister’s amazing capacity to touch ennobled this final act. The costumes were amusing, especially the unusual head pieces and Adèle’s unbelievable high heels. It should be noted that Act 2 was split into two parts, with the last third joining Act 3. Given there was only one intermission, this split the operetta more evenly. Also, it provided more original music to the second part, as Act 3 is mostly spoken, and its music is mostly reprised from the previous acts.

Annette Dasch sang Rosalinde with brio. Her Act 2 aria, Czardas, was exquisite: no difficulty with the high notes, a good impersonation of a Hungarian Countess and most of all a natural verve for comedy. Moreover, she seemed to truly enjoy herself. Thomas Blondelle was totally at ease as Eisenstein. He perfectly conveyed the character’s tempestuous demeanour, but was less convincing as a seducer. This was perhaps intentional, to show Eisenstein’s exaggerated opinion of himself. Angela Brower’s mezzo was not the ideal timbre for Orlovsky. The voice is too light to sound like the trouser-role she is supposed to portray. Mind you, along with several guests, Prince Orlovosky ends up transforming into a female in the sexual phantasmagoria that the party brings. His aria, “Chacun à son goût,” lacked panache in part due to the voice’s colour and in part due to an unconvincing characterization. Nicole Haslett’s Adèle was charming. Her portrayal of the conniving housemaid was to the point. Her aria “Mein Herr Marquis!” had the required coloratura, and her voice was clearly distinct from Rosalinde’s. Enea Scala was a brilliant Alfred. His sweet tenor explains Rosalinde’s continued weakness for him. However, his exaggeration of the inanest of tenors bordered on a racist caricature of Italians. Nikolas Maximilian Nägele energetically led the orchestra, but perhaps too fast at times. It worked well in the overture, the Dr. Blind-Eisenstein-Rosalinde Act I trio and the dance sequences, but robbed some of the sung parts of their Viennese charm.

Despite the change of epoch and place, this production was successful. Obviously stage director Rolando Villazón’s experience as a singer on the world’s most important stages and in this operetta has given him insight that would have escaped today’s myriad “innovative” stage directors, devoid of knowledge of music, history or literature. For anyone who has heard Villazón in interviews, he is a Renaissance man, ever curious and hungry for more knowledge. My only reservation is that it felt like an incomplete staging. Some of the fantastical elements evoked an opera Villazón has often performed, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Dr. Falke as an alter ego of that opera’s Dr. Miracle during the overture, Adèle as the doll Olympia, especially in the last act, Frosch the simpleton as Frantz, Crespel’s deaf servant. Even more elements evoked comic-book folklore: the stylized Chinese enforcers, a lone sailor at Orlovsky’s party that reminded one of Popeye, the caricatural Cuban Rumberos, much of the choreography in the second act and the zany third act setting. Further stylization and elaboration of the “comics” theme would have resulted in a truly novel and imaginative production.

Ossama el Naggar



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