When Opera McGill announced its landmark 60th anniversary season, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus seemed an odd, lacklustre choice for their centrepiece performance. Composed in 1874, Die Fledermaus is an Austrian operatic staple, a lighthearted sitcom-in-concert portraying the whims and wiles of Vienna’s late 19th-century upper class. It’s a delightful opera, to be sure; but it’s also an ordinary opera, frequently performed and musically familiar. It stands in contrast with the company’s 2015-16 lineup, which included Mark Adamo’s 1998 operatic adaptation of Little Women, and Handel’s seldom heard Baroque gem Rodelinda. Celebrating six decades of top-notch opera education and production, could Opera McGill not take on a more monumental, extra-ordinary project?
The January 28 performance at the Monument-National Theatre was the final installment of a three-show run and took place in front of a full house. Esteemed alumni of McGill’s opera training program returned to the stage in crowd-pleasing cameos to celebrate Opera McGill’s decades-long history. The company delivered nothing short of an extraordinary performance – brilliantly executed by the student performers in a production that was, for a change, decidedly not racist, as their previous production of Alcina was.
Die Fledermaus tells a tale of romance, revenge, and mistaken identity. Charged with a misdemeanor crime, ingenuous aristocrat Gabriel von Eisenstein –zestfully sung by baritone Jonah Spungin – is served an eight day prison sentence. The night he is to leave, he lies to his bumbling lawyer Blind – tenor Torrance Gricks – and tenacious wife Rosalinde –Toumine, sneaking out instead to attend an extravagant ball hosted by the exceedingly wealthy and chronically bored Prince Orlofsky –mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh – for one last night of debauchery before his imprisonment.
[Opera McGill] delivered […] an extraordinary performance – brilliantly executed by the student performers.
Baritone Igor Mostovoi thrilled the audience as Eisenstein’s conniving friend Doctor Falke. Over the course of the evening, the moustache-twirling prankster tries to exact his vengeance for an embarrassing drunken incident that once left him passed out and costumed as a bat (hence the titular fledermaus) only to awaken to public ridicule in the town square. Falke pulls more strings than even a caffeinated Frank Underwood possibly could. He invites Rosalinde, disguised as a Hungarian countess, to witness her husband’s unfaithful flirtations at the Prince’s ball, along with the good-natured prison warden Frank (lanky baritone Paul Winkelmans) to catch sight of Eisenstein living it up on the dance floor instead of behind bars.
Tenor John Carr Cook commanded heavy laughs in the role of Alfred, a lecherous opera singer and former lover to Rosalinde, now bent on winning back her affections despite her marriage to Eisenstein. The determined Casanova climbs to serenade Rosalinde from her balcony. To protect Rosalinde’s reputation, he impersonates Eisenstein – lest she is caught at home with a man who is not her husband. However, the plan backfires, and Alfred ends up taking Eisenstein’s place in jail. Carr Cook sang with a confident voice that balanced melodrama with majesty: Alfred’s pompous, seeming improvisatory invocations of Mozart and Puccini might have been equally at home on the Met stage, or on an American Idol outtakes reel.
Meanwhile, soprano Gina Hanzlik stole the show as the Eisenstein’s stagy housekeeper Adele, who sobs and pleads for a night off work to care for her dear, sick aunt, but instead steals a dress from Rosalinde’s closet and hightails it to Prince Orlofsky’s party. There, she masquerades as an up-and-coming actress, charming the guests – including a disguised Eisenstein – and shaking the lethargic Prince from his sighs of boredom. Hanzlik’s spry charisma and sparkling voice took centre stage. Her command of comedy seemed natural as she floundered, flirted, and kvetched, while her rendition of the famous “Laughing Song” – accompanied by captivating, waltzing harmonies from the McGill Symphony Orchestra – lilted with effortless magnetism.
True to form, the students onstage outshone the behind-the-scenes professionals. Director Patrick Hansen, Professor of Opera Studies, concocted a trilingual version of the originally German script. While the performers navigated every codeswitch – German to English to French – with convincing precision, the mere presence of all three languages onstage seemed excessive. This over-complication might stem from the feeble reasoning behind Hansen’s linguistic decision, which he explained in his Director’s Notes as “just to make things interesting” and “[to bring] a nice flair to the story.”
The choice [of having three languages] was a superficial one: it added little to the production.
While French, the language of the 19th-century Russian court, sounded at home in the Russian Prince’s mansion – and, of course, fit right in on a Montreal stage – Hansen’s rendition saw Adele and her flirtatious sister Ida (soprano Jacoba Barber-Rozema) alternating between Viennese German and Estuary English. This choice demanded backstory: how did two working-class Londoners find the resources and motivation to up and move across the Channel? Ultimately, the choice was a superficial one: it added little to the production, other than predictable laughter at Hanzlik’s exaggerated outbursts of “Oh, bugger!”
Set and costume designs by Vincent Lefèvre and Ginette Grenier, respectively, were heavily advertised as drawing inspiration from the symbolist art of Gustav Klimt. True, Lefèvre and Grenier borrowed Klimt’s propensity for gold leaf and concentric squares, but they neglected the subversive eroticism central to Klimt’s work. The result was an extravagant and visually engaging turn-of-the-century aesthetic, but the purported Klimt inspiration seemed shallow and unnecessary. But then again, Klimt’s work did thrive in a culture of excess – the opulent upper crust of Viennese society, a world in which the Eisensteins would have felt right at home. And, after sixty seasons, Opera McGill well deserves some gold.
Like the characters blundering through Prince Orlofsky’s lavish ball, privileged and insulated from the outside world, the audience at Monument-National capped off a long week by watching an opera – an art form so often seen as elitist and inaccessible. But opera should, and often does, engage with societal issues in ways both subtle and broad. In Opera McGill’s Die Fledermaus, an extraordinarily talented young cast took the stage, made musi, and landed jokes with utmost professionalism. The audience, entranced, was far from insulated. Instead, after a week of difficult headlines, Die Fledermaus was the perfect coda. We could all use a laugh right now.