Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Michael Schade and Laura Tucker. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

** (out of five)
A huge pocket watch swings ominously stage right and a woman is tossing in a large, fancy bed, stage left. Time or watches will play a significant role in this production. The woman is obviously dreaming but what about? She may be dreaming about what is happening in her life or having a nightmare about the production of Die Fledermaus by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

The woman is Rosalinde Eisenstein (Tamara Wilson), one of the main characters in Johann Strauss II’s comic operetta directed by Christopher Alden. Did I say “comic? Alden believes that the word “comic” is inapplicable to this dark, Freudian psychodrama and proceeds to prove it over the next couple of hours.

Let’s get back to the bed (or is it a psychiatrist’s couch) and keep a keen eye on it. It will be on stage almost all evening.

There is great turmoil in the well-off Eisenstein house.  Rosalinde’s husband Gabriel (Michael Schade) is about to go to jail for a few nights.  Her feisty maid Adele (Mireille Asselin) wants to go to a party and fibs about having to see a sick aunt in order to get the night off. Alfred (David Pomeroy), a horny opera tenor is courting Rosalinde with Italian passion (and arias) and has in fact made it to her bed. To make things worse, he is wearing her husband’s dressing gown.  That is what you call comic confusion – sorry, make that a dark, shadowy plot for Freudian analysis.

The Eisensteins have a friend called Dr. Falke (Peter Barrett) and a bad lawyer called Dr. Blind (David Cangelosi). The latter is the papier-mâché type of bumbling fool who manages to sneak in a few laughs in the psychodrama.

Amid the dark shades, the shadows of bats and Dr. Falke dressed up as a bat, we see a crack in the back wall of the stage and a party breaks out (or is supposed to break out) in Prince Orlofsky’s (played by Laura Tucker) pad. Even here Alden does his best to make sure that the jollity is kept within bounds and laughter is limited to a few twitters.

Operetta is perceived by some as “popular” entertainment – good for the masses but lacking the hauteur and cultural superiority of opera. Light, effervescent, melodic music, a silly but funny plot, broad humour – those are the ingredients that some of us look for in an operetta. If it lacks the snobbish appeal of opera, we have the strength of character to enjoy it.

Alden and perhaps the COC want to have it both ways. They want us to keep our snobbery by producing an operetta at a high-toned opera house and make sure we do not enjoy it too much by removing most of the elements that make operetta such fun.

Happily, there is rebellion in the ranks. The first to rebel against Alden’s deadly approach is Strauss himself. Those marvelous tunes, wonderful waltzes and some of the humour simply breaks through and you find yourself enjoying the piece.

Tamara Wilson as Roselinde is fairly irrepressible and Mireille Asselin is funny and sings well as the maid. Michael Schade can sing but he falls a bit short in his comic acting as Eisenstein. There are lots of opportunities for broad humour with James Westman as Frank, the prison warden, Jan Pohl as the jailer and Claire de Sevigne as Adele’s sister Ida but most of them are squashed.

The plot is based on mistaken identities, farcical situations and verbal humour. Humour rarely survives surtitles and Alden goes for the jugular by doing the production in German. This is enough to give snobbery a bad name and laughter the door.

The Canadian Company Chorus was corralled around the stage for reasons that escaped me. Alden gives them a pillow fight for reasons best known to him but effectively hidden from me. They rebelled by singing well Conductor Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra ignored all Freudian problems and stuck to the lively music. 

For Sigmund Freud everything in human conduct was caused, or affected by, sex. Almost everything. The cigar-smoking psychiatrist was once asked if the big stogie in his mouth was not a sexual symbol.

The astute Freud replied that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Alden should have listened to the old master: sometimes an operetta is just an operetta.

Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II opened on October 4 and will be performed eleven times until November 3, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca

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