Opera 5’s interactive production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus opened last night in the Great Hall at 918 Bathurst. It’s an intriguing but, above all, fun show. I think it’s fair to say that presented straight Die Fledermaus has more than a few elements of meta-theatricality. Here it’s central to the plot from MC Pearle Harbour’s initial apology for the lack of a fourth wall because “we can’t afford one” through a whole series of “interventions” by various characters. Unpacking it all would probably make as much sense as Umberto Eco’s Three Owls on a Chest of Drawers and I’m not as clever as the late Professor Eco and, in best Fledermaus tradition, it’s the morning after and I’ve only had five hours sleep. So, I’ll avoid the meta and try and describe the show.
There are two things that make this Fledermaus stand out. The first is the element of transladaptation (here we go again). The story is updated to contemporary Toronto and sung in English. There are some cast changes. Frosh is gone and we get an MC, as referred to above, drag queen Pearle Harbour, who also takes on the functions assigned to Ivan in the original. Rosalinde’s party persona is Texan rather than Hungarian. Orlofsky is female and heir to a Putin era Russian fortune. There are lots of jokes about Montreal. Last, but not least, Champagne, in it’s many roles, is replaced by Steamwhistle Beer. This is not just a coy Torontoism, there’s plenty of it available free to the audience courtesy of the brewery.
Much of this is to facilitate the two part interactive structure of the evening. Act 1 is more or less conventionally performed on stage in front of the seated audience but after the interval things switch up a gear with the chairs mostly removed and the action revolving around a platform in the middle of the room. One of the functions of Ms. Harbour is to explain what’s going on to the audience, as well as to keep up a commentary on the action. As the action at Orlofsky’s develops, audience members have a choice. They can sit, wall flower like, in the remaining chairs around the perimeter of the room or they can stay closer to the “platform” where they risk being pulled into the action by cast members.
The first act staging is actually pretty clever. It mostly uses hand drawn silhouettes as props and scenario. It’s a low budget approach that is functional but starts to tee up the artificiality of the piece. The acting here is also pretty broad. We are not aiming at some kind of unattainable “realism” and Julie Ludwig as Adele, in particular, really throws herself about.
As well as the usual plot development there’s plenty of additional action once we get to Orlofsky’s party. The “czardas” is accompanied by two dancers, en point, in a very funny parody choreography. There’s a burlesque dancer/hoopist who gets as close to naked as I’ve seen in a North American opera performance. There’s an aerialist doing silks on a cleverly contrived rig. So, it’s no surprise that, with all the dancing, hooting and hollering, by the time we get to act 3 it’s time for the loose ends to be tied up as expeditiously as possible which the production does quite neatly, give or take a running, and rather revolting, vomit joke. All up, it’s a clever conceit with the details well thought through and put together by the creative team of Aria Umezawa and Jessica Deventis (stage direction), Jenn Nichols (choreography) and Matthew Vaile (sets and costumes).
In terms of performances, Michael Barrett’s Eisenstein is the stand out. He is an amazing physical actor and has a powerful but flexible tenor that coped with the tricky acoustic pretty well (the Great Hall has a high pitched ceiling which makes it great for aerial silks but rather tends to take the bloom off voices). It’s hard not to joke about him standing head and shoulders above his rather diminutive Rosalinde (Rachel Krehm) and Falke (Keith Lam). They are both rather impressive though; convincing dramatically and singing well too, especially Rachel in her big set piece though I’m sure I was missing some of the Texan jokes on account of aforesaid acoustics. Keith’s outfit alone is worthy of note. He would be less conspicuous in a bat costume. Julie Ludwig impresses as Adele. She really throws herself about physically, especially in Act 1, but succeeds in pulling off the tricky coloratura as well. Erin Lawson manages to convey the ennui of Orlofsky convincingly and can also do weirdly manic quite convincingly. Madison Angus as Ida gets top marks for surviving “dancing” with me. Geoffrey Penar (Frank), Daniel Denino (Dr. Blind) and Justin Ralph (Alfred) round out a very effective acting/singing cast. Then there’s Ms. Harbour. She’s simply divine darlings.
The chorus has a heck of lot to do in Act 2 as they bear the brunt of “managing” the audience participation. They do it very well and look and sound great. Patrick Hansen conducts and is well on board with the concept, something that can make or break a non-traditional approach. We have the luxury of a ten or twelve piece band rather than tinny piano so there’s lots of colour there too.
So, it’s a romp and a very clever and fun one if you are prepared to enter into the spirit of it. If you go expecting COC production values and “big house” singing then maybe not so fun. And maybe someone can unpack all the meta for me. Blame the Steamwhistle.
Opera 5’s Die Fledermaus runs until the 11th at 918 Bathurst. Ticket and other information can be found here.