Third Time’s a Dud: Talky and Extravagant, the Met’s New Die Fledermaus Hits the Wrong Notes

But Gotham Chamber Opera rang the new year in right with 'Orphée'

'Die Fledermaus.'

‘Die Fledermaus.’

History proves that it is not impossible to scale up Die Fledermaus, a soufflé of a show, for a gigantic venue like the Met. One of the undisputed triumphs of Rudolf Bing’s regime with the Met was a version of Die Fledermaus devised in 1950 by Broadway pros Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday) and Howard Dietz (“That’s Entertainment”). They brought to the work a brassy sensibility comparable to that of the contemporary hit Call Me Madam, with touches of topical humor and, above all, the brisk pace that is a hallmark of the Broadway musical. That production was performed 31 times in its first season alone, racking up more than 100 performances before the show was retired in 1967.

The operetta returned to the Met in 1986 in an ornately detailed extravaganza sung in the original German and spoken in a stilted English translation devised by Marcel Prawy, dramaturg of the Vienna State Opera. Though this staging was not the smash hit Bing’s Die Fledermaus was, it returned frequently during the Joseph Volpe era during the 1990s, usually with an interpolated gala sequence in which, say, Stephanie Blythe might belt out a show tune.

But the Met’s brand new production of Die Fledermaus, which premiered on New Year’s Eve, is overproduced, undersung and interminable, less a holiday entertainment than a checklist of opera-making skills the company can’t seem to master.

What went wrong? What the two previous productions had in common was that they both pruned the spoken libretto severely, leaving only enough dialogue to frame Strauss’ nearly two hours of music with a précis of the plot and a few one-liners. In the new Die Fledermaus, audiences have to slog though a garrulous new book by Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) that kills the comic pace and drags out the evening to just a few minutes short of four hours. The characters explain the storyline to each other multiple times, with lots of pauses and lots of “and then?” And then there are the jokes: tenor jokes, body odor jokes, prison rape jokes, pedophile clergy jokes, even a Barbra Streisand joke—in French.

The reason Die Fledermaus benefits from less talk, rather than more, is that its story, which finds some of its roots in French farce, is straightforward: The wealthy Viennese Gabriel von Eisenstein is set to go to jail for a few days for a minor infraction, but his chum, Dr. Falke, convinces him to spend his last free night cavorting at a ball thrown by the eccentric Russian prince Orlovsky. Falke has a hidden agenda, though: In retaliation for a humiliating prank years before, he’s introducing Eisenstein at the ball as a French marquis, and he’s also inviting the jailer, Eisenstein’s maid, Adele, and his wife, Rosalinde, who, remember, thinks Eisenstein is spending the night in jail.

In the new production, director Jeremy Sams’ lyrics tend toward middlebrow banality “(You’d better go / you’d better go / you are decidedly de trop”), and his staging settles for standard-issue cavorting and prancing, with lots of breast- and butt-grabbing.

There’s some vaguely unsavory business in the first act implying the Eisensteins are assimilated Jews, an improbable element of which there is no hint in the original libretto. They have a menorah set up next to their Christmas tree and pepper their conversation with Yiddishisms like “schlemiel” and “goyim.”  Later they order pork for supper. These details, however, play no narrative role and are never explained.

There’s also a whiff of homophobia: The talented countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was directed to play the bored Prince Orlofsky as a screaming ’tude queen, the butt of Mr. Beane’s clunky gay jokes. (After all, the prince is “eccentric” and sings in a high voice, so he must have sex with guys, right?) Sadly, even Mr. Costanzo’s voice wasn’t quite high enough for the clumsy tessitura of Orlofsky’s song, which left him sounding shrill.

He wasn’t the only one having an off night. Baritone Christopher Maltman found the tenor role of Eisenstein tough sledding, pushing his slender voice and tiring by the third act. Soprano Susanna Phillips sounded tired at the beginning of the evening, and her attractive, silvery voice turned glassy on Rosalinde’s many high notes. She also omitted a few of the trickier bits of her second-act “Czardas” song.

In steadier form was Jane Archibald as the flirtatious maid, Adele, sparkling with personality and coloratura in her last act audition number. The biggest name in the show, baritone Paulo Szot, struggled with his acres of dialogue (English is not his first language) and momentarily got lost in his “Brüderlein” toasting song.

The best singing came in small doses: Patrick Carfizzi as Frank, the jailer, and Mark Schowalter as the bumbling lawyer, Blind, both delivered solid tone and crisp diction even in Mr. Sams’ least vocally friendly tongue twisters. By far the hit of the show, though, was Michael Fabiano as Rosalinde’s ex, Alfred. His luscious lyric tenor rang out thrillingly up to high C, even from his backstage “prison cell” in the third act, and, unusually for his voice type, he proved a witty comic actor.

Broadway veteran Danny Burstein won the evening’s only belly laughs in his cameo as the tipsy prison guard, Frosch. His scattershot material was marginally better than the rest of the libretto, but he put it over with the aggressive confidence of a born baggy-pants comic.

Sets and costumes are if anything too sumptuous, tending to Bloomingdale’s Christmas window. With the action nudged forward from 1875 to 1899, the Eisensteins’ townhouse boasts enormous faux Klimt paintings, and Orlofsky’s cavernous ballroom borrows and inverts the celebrated gold-leaf dome from Vienna’s Secession Building. At the end of the second act, the production goes full Showgirls, with half-naked ballerinas swinging form the chandelier and cannons pelting the stage with gold glitter.

Amid all this excess, Adam Fischer’s conducting was steady but wan, as if the party was over before it started.

After Die Fledermaus’ sour farewell to 2013, it seemed a good omen that the first performance of the new year was the modest but delectable presentation of La descente d’Orphée aux enfers by Gotham Chamber Opera. The understated charm of this 1686 Marc-Antoine Charpentier opera paired perfectly on Jan. 1 with the cozy St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church Wall Street, subtly transformed with projections of clouds and flame to frame the gentle action of the brief musical drama.

Partnering with members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, led a quietly assured performance, sensitive to the ebb and flow of Charpentier’s flexible vocal lines. This task was not easy, since Mr. Goren and his little band of violins, gambas and recorders were marooned upstage of the action and in visual communication with the singers only through video monitors.

Whether by accident or design, the young, fresh-voiced cast recalled the original circumstances of this work, when household musicians sang it in a private residence. The little arias and recitatives sounded informal and spontaneous, always on a human level, even when the Orphée pleaded with the gods of the underworld to return his Eurydice to life.

Whether pleading or mourning, tenor Paul Curran sounded elegant and lithe in the hero’s high-lying phrases. Soprano Mary Feminear and bass-baritone Jeffrey Beruan brought an appropriately cool formality to the disagreement between the deathly Prosperine and Pluton; in contrast, John Brancy’s bright baritone blazed in Apollon’s aria of encouragement to his son, Orphée.

Unfortunately, the theatricals weren’t on par with the music. French baroque operas, even those as minute as this Orphée, almost invariably include big chunks of ballet music. Unimaginatively, Andrew Eggert’s production featured a suite of undemanding folk dances devised by Doug Elkins. The singers clomped around gamely enough, but it’s hard to justify a $125 ticket price to watch amateurs attempting a stripped-down version of the Virginia reel.

Since the demise of New York City Opera, all eyes are on Mr. Goren’s troupe to take its place as Manhattan’s “second” company. That’s hardly an impossible dream if Gotham can get its theatrical values up to the same exalted level it consistently achieves musically.