By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — In the third act of Die Fledermaus at the Deutsche Oper, the jailer Frosch presses a torture button to silence Alfred, the singing teacher who has been imprisoned in the place of Gabriel von Eisenstein. “Emotions are not included,” declares Frosch, cast as an android in Rolando Villazón’s new staging, which opened April 28.
As the jailer repeatedly reaches for the button on a futuristic space ship, the action becomes a metaphor for this overblown take on Johann Strauss’ operetta: A clever idea is milked until it is no longer funny. The pace begins to drag even more when the prison governor Frank arrives at his office — or, rather, is teleported — and spends several minutes trying to step through the door, blocked by a metal net wrapped around his head.
Villazón, who rose to fame as the tenor of a “dream couple” with Anna Netrebko and subsequently reduced his onstage activities due to vocal problems, writes in program notes of the importance to present Die Fledermaus with characters and a language “of today.” The production begins in a 19th-century living room, travels to 1950s East Berlin, and ends in a future where robots have become a reality.
On the proscenium, a modern street bum observes the action, while cavemen in various stages of evolution cross the stage between scenes. During the second-act party at Prince Orlofksy’s villa, everyone from Puerto Rican entertainers to Russian maids break out into at times histrionic dance.
Villazón’s message seems to be that the operetta speaks to people of any time or social setting. But that is true of any great work of art, and the disparate dramatic elements do not cohere into a clear or profound take on the libretto.
The third act is particularly torturous given the duration of the adapted text. When the score returns with Adèle’s couplet “Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande,” it almost sounds like incidental music to a newly created show.
Can Die Fledermaus really not hold its own? If anything, Villazón’s self-indulgent staging underscores how moving and humorous the 1874 work remains. Strauss’ melodies never grow tiresome, and the characters, with all their contradictions and affectations, are as endearing as they are pitiful.
The cast turns out energetic performances, but the acting is often so hammed up that comic moments fall flat. As von Eisenstein, ensemble member Thomas Blondelle is an appropriately bourgeois dandy and never lacks for vocal stamina.
German star soprano Annette Dasch, in her role debut as his wife, Rosalinde, is by turns vengeful and coquettish, reaching a dramatic high point when disguised as the Hungarian Countess in Act Two. She is uneven vocally, however, at times soaring above the orchestra but not sustaining the high note that ends the Act One trio “Mein schönes, grosses Vogelhaus.”
Enea Scala brings a seductive tenor to the role of Alfredo, turning out one beautifully shaped aria after another while remaining the caricature of an opera singer. Up-and-coming soprano Meechot Marrero, a grantee of the Deutsche Oper, appears as Adele, Rosalinde’s maid, investing her arias with silvery coloratura and youthful charm. The performance at times lacks dramatic subtlety, however: In Villazón’s take, she is a kind of revolutionary, pumping her fist in the air and rousing the visitors of Prince Orlofsky.
As the prince, mezzo-soprano Angela Brower gives an authoritative performance vocally, while her accent in spoken passages wavers between American and Russian. Markus Brück, as Frank, is an overbearing prison director, Thomas Lehman a scheming Dr. Falke, and Kathleen Bauer a bossy presence as Ida, Adele’s sister.
The house orchestra under music director Donald Runnicles is in top form, offering a taut, elegant performance of the overture and sensitive accompaniment to the singers. The rubato that is so crucial to Strauss’ score is always authentically timed, making it all the more unfortunate the staging veers so far from the original.
Following a dramatically and musically tight trio of Rosalinde, Alfred, and Eisentein in the third act (“Ich stehe voll Zagen“), the theme from the film score to 2001: A Space Odyssey rises from the pit and the revolving stage returns to a 19th-century living room. The robot Frosch (Florian Teichtmeister) appears in a new “2.0” version with “emotions included.”
Time travel and the social effects of technology are interesting enough themes, but perhaps the resources invested in the production’s elaborate sets and costumes would be better put toward a new opera that deals with the subject matter in a serious way. The comedy of switched identity and romantic betrayal that drives Die Fledermaus achieves few new dimensions, despite Villazón’s attempt to cover the entire breadth of human history.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.