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Drunks, Dumb Tenor Toast 2014 at Met: Manuela Hoelterhoff

A scene from Act 2 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s
A scene from Act 2 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- The Metropolitan Opera has a huge costume department. Can a brave soul bring a pair of scissors to the office of Peter Gelb, general manager?

Or how about a stage hand with a hacksaw?

The curtain rose on the new production of “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat) at 6:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and the next day we were still there, while most everyone else was drunk in bed.

“Fledermaus” is an operetta -- meaning a 19th-century musical featuring sentimental story lines with happy endings sung by people who don’t need microphones to be heard. In this case, an embarrassing episode featuring a bat costume drove the slight if convoluted plot.

Austria has been humming tunes from “Fledermaus” ever since the premiere in 1874.

Performances on New Year’s Eve are mandated in Vienna by the same ukase that provides Austrian pensioners with three daily helpings of Sacher Torte consumed to memory-soaked renditions of “The Blue Danube Waltz” (also the creation of Johann Strauss Jr.).

It is hard to dislike a piece prominently featuring alcoholics, adulterers, cute maids, a stupid tenor, an effete Russian prince, and a psychotic lawyer with a grudge, who in this new version, has skidded into the life of a party planner.

That’s one of the funniest changes concocted by Jeremy Sams (song lyrics) and Douglas Carter Beane (dialogue), who’ve freshened up the text without altering the story line or fiddling with the music.

Boozy Jailer

The usually deadly last act was wondrously improved by the drunken ramblings into contemporary culture by the actor Danny Burstein who was highly entertaining as Frosch, the booze-addled jailer. Nicely amplifying my own leitmotif, he said: “I only had one drink and it started yesterday.”

But in the days of Google and surtitles, the story of the bat can definitely be told in less time than Richard Wagner needs to set up the destruction of the world in “Das Rheingold.”

All the while we were looking at very expensive, curiously uninteresting sets occasionally obscured by limp choreography. The ball scene’s gigantic chandelier drew sounds of enchantment from the audience. I’d like to see it again, too, albeit in another production.

This one by Sams (who also directed) and stage designer Robert Jones is surprisingly conventional. The period has been updated from Strauss’s heyday to New Year’s Eve, 1899. So what? So we look at large pictures by Gustav Klimt instead of portraits by Hans Makart?

Stocks Tumble

Given the stock market collapse of 1873, the earlier Grunderzeit might have provided the edge and foreboding that a new staging of “Fledermaus” could use, especially when delivered in English by some wonderful singers.

It’s nice to see Susanna Phillips, the Alabama-born soprano, continuing her starry ascent with a beautifully sung, spirited Rosalinde. Michael Fabiano, another promising artist, was often amusing as the idiot tenor who once bellowed his way into her heart. Paulo Szot brought a nice baritonal buzz to the vengeful Falke, the nutcase who would have appalled even Dr. Freud, but didn’t interest director Sams all too much.

The role of Prince Orlofsky was written for a mezzo and I hope the trend to casting a countertenor stops now and forever with Anthony Roth Costanzo. Tiny of stature, topped off by a Goth hairdo, he looked and sounded like a rooster that was still hatching. In this traditional staging, he was out of place, though I can see him triumphing in a baroque masterpiecelet written for castrati.

That happy man in the pit was Adam Fischer, who swayed and swooned through the pretty tunes.

The production continues until the end of time.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net

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