The operetta is a genre that thrived from the cultural exchange between Paris and Vienna. The libretto of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an adaptation of the French play Le Réveillon by Meilhac and Halévy and the very origins of operetta itself is arguably connected to the style of musical theatre established in the Opéra Comique. Director Ivan Alexandre has decided that a performance of this work at this very theatre should be special: a new French translation by Pascal Paul-Harang has been commissioned and the staging takes place in a highly stylized version of our days (sets and costumes are a bit confusing though). Although the music loses a bit when divorced of the very particular rhythm of the German language (you just need to compare Mit dem Profil im griech’schen Stil/Beschenkte mir Natur/Wenn nicht dies Gesicht schon genügend sprichst/So seh’n Sie die Figur with Regardez ce front, ce nez ce menton/Comme ils sont dessinés/Vous le voyez bien, vous ne trouvez rien/Qui ne soit distingué), the French text is faithful to the spirit and adds a very French sense of humor to the proceedings. As for the staging, much of what Mr. Alexandre creates is delightful: as usual, the ballet in Orlofsky’s party is not used, here replaced by a power shortage that has the audience retire (for the interval) only to be compensated by some offering by Prince Orlofsky – a couple of dances by Johann Strauss and his own impersonation of Cecilia Bartoli in Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti from Vivaldi’s Griselda (I wasn’t very keen on this one but after two seconds I was laughing my heart out) – and the Frosch with a social conscience. Although the idea that Alfred is so infatuated by himself that he does not realize that Rosalinde would not require much of an effort of seduction is funny, but makes Rosalinde too much of a hypocrite. Anyway, this is evidently carefully conceived Personenregie and the cast is top level in the acting department. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had fun.
I was not so taken by the musical side of the performance. Although Marc Minkowski had already conducted this work in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, I was surprised by how little idiomatic his conducting sounded this evening. There was very little flexibility with tempo, to start with. Then the strings lacked the necessary suppleness and charm – I understand that the idea was to highlight particular colors in other sections of the orchestra, but the result was a little military-band-like. I was surprised to hear an orchestra used to rapid passagework in Handel, Rameau and Gluck so imprecise in this music. All things Viennese had this ambiguity between seriousness and humor. When you listen to the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein ensemble in all recordings in Vienna there is this inimitable mélange of melancholy and sensuous playfulness – here it sounded just serious. In any case, although charm was very restricted, there was forward movement and animation.
Although the cast had many interesting singers, almost none of them were truly well cast. Chiara Skerath has an appealing smooth voice, flexible enough and ductile in lovely mezza voce, but she is helplessly light for this role: whenever things get low or high and fast or requiring louder dynamics, she sounds off focus and colorless. She should have avoided in alts in any case. I am not a fan of the idea of a countertenor Orlofsky. Kangmin Justin Kim has some naughty ideas about how to mix his chest voice in and finally has done better than most, but Brigitte Fassbaender, for instance, surpasses him in everything, even androgyny. He does deserve praise for his Bartoli-caricature – it is almost frighteningly accurate… Although Philippe Talbot’s extreme high notes are a bit tight, it is an extremely pleasing and natural tenor voice – and he phrases with elegance. Stéphane Degout is, of course, an impressive singer who deals heroically with the high tessitura of the part of Eisenstein… but you have noticed that I have written “heroically”? Precisely. Florian Sempey (Falke) sounded a bit grey-toned in the beginning but he developed later an almost Hermann Prey-ish velvety-toned charm for the Brüderlein and Schwesterlein scene. I leave the best for last: when Sabine Devielhe learns how to control the overmetallic quality of her in alts, she is going to be a perfect singer. As she is today, she is only very, very good: her soprano is delightfully bell-toned, her diction is exemplary, she phrases musicianly, has exciting coloratura and is also a terrific actress with looks to spare.