Flighty “Die Fledermaus” Wobbles But Lands

FPresented by The Harvard College Opera
Composed by Johann Strauss II
Libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée
Music Directed by Sasha Yakub
Stage Directed by Mitch Polonsky

Agassiz Theater
Cambridge, MA
Jan 31 – Feb 4
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Cambridge, MA) The Harvard College Opera succeeds in creating a production of Die Fledermaus with the boozy haze that one would associate with a show that sings a tribute to champagne, dubbed “the king of wines!” How else would a woman, Rosalinde (Veronica Richer, a marvelous soprano), successfully disguise herself from her husband, Eisenstein (Ethan Craigo), with a flimsy mask? Why else would an innocent man, Alfred (the charming Samuel Rosner), happily go to prison instead of the husband of his beloved? The logic of this operetta is certainly rooted in the logic of being pleasantly drunk. It’s only when the show becomes more interested in its sensibility than its story, like someone drinking under the impression he’s far funnier and balanced than he thinks he is, that it begins to wobble.

This colorful production begins in a disorderly, contemporary office. Adele (Arianna Paz), the chambermaid, is dressed as a janitor, with the still-resonant dream of becoming an actress. Alfred, the would-be lover of Rosalinde, dresses in a tuxedo and hides in a trash can to woo the object of his affections. We first meet Eisenstein as he blusters on-stage, enraged at his lawyer, initially a sock puppet handled by Nick Hornedo, who was unable to get him off of a disorderly conduct charge. Now Eisenstein is headed to prison for the next few days. Before he goes, he’s convinced to spend one last night out on the town by Dr. Falke (Oliver Berliner). Falke has his own agenda. He’s looking for vengeance for a past slight having to do with a bat costume, a party, a fountain, and a great deal of embarrassment.

Rather than hear the characters recount, either in spoken word or song, the incident that lends the show its name, this production relies on the curious choice of a narrator, who is uncredited. For the first act and through about half of the second, the lecture format is utilized. It certainly saves time and clears up confusion for modern audiences, in some ways. While I appreciate the postmodern nature of having a man summarize the very show we’re watching while we’re watching it, it seems to be a peculiar choice for a story whose middle act descends into the chaos of a costume party thrown by hedonist, Prince Orlofsky (Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, who packs a wonderful voice and dynamite stage presence). This narrator is chased off stage by no one less than a dancer in a dinosaur costume, because this production swims in whimsy as it celebrates champagne bubbles.

The staging choices by Mitchell Polonsky and Beckett Mullen can be fun but admittedly chaotic. Packing peanuts are left on stage from the first act and crunched by cast members throughout. Party detritus (inflated flamingos and porpoises) remain in the “prison” for the last act, just waiting to trip performers. I admit, I was too overwhelmed with anxiety to really enjoy the singing done on top of an office desk because I could see, from the audience, that very desk wobble. Similarly, the trash can where Alfred hides in order to surprise his potential mistress wobbled and fell over during the show I saw, spilling Rosner head over tail toward the orchestra pit. Suffice to say, while I appreciated the detailed work of the show, these few choices felt more like bugs than features.

I was also not very fond of using “Klänge der Heimat,” which Rosalinde sings while in disguise as an Hungarian countess, as an attempt to parody the faux-nationalism of Americana. The parody just felt confused and didn’t land, even given the obvious talent of the undergraduate cast that left me green with envy.

The work of the music director, Alexander “Sasha” Yakub, is superb. The orchestra is a finely tuned machine and the songs performed are beautifully done and terribly funny. In a show with a nonsensical plot and a great deal of affection for alcohol, I was pleased to see that the skill on display was handled with a great deal of seriousness. Champagne and dancing dinosaur or not, the Harvard College Opera has some damn talented people.

Queen’s Note: Apologies to the cast and crew of Die Fledermaus for the tardiness of this review. Illness has prevented me from posting in a more timely manner. Sincerely, KD

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