Toronto Operetta Theatre/ Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, conducted by Derek Bate, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin, Jane Mallett Theatre, Dec. 28, 2018, to Jan. 2, 2019. Tickets available at 416-366-7723 or www.stlc.com.
One expects a Toronto Operetta Theatre production to be fun, and the company’s latest incarnation of Johann Strauss’s beloved Die Fledermaus does not disappoint. As per custom, TOT delivers good musical values, plus a considerable number of laughs.
The plot, such as it is, is a candidate for merriment. Dr. Falke has planned an elaborate revenge on his friend Gabriel Eisenstein. The latter left the drunken Falke, a barrister, lying asleep on a bench in front of the law courts in a bat costume for all to see — an embarrassing incident if ever there was. Meanwhile, Eisenstein is about to go to jail for punching a police officer. His wife Rosalinda gives her maid Adele the night off because her old beau Alfred, an opera singer, has arrived unexpectedly. When the prison warden Frank arrives to arrest Eisenstein, he takes Alfred away instead. Falke has maneuvered his client, the very bored Russian Prince Orlovsky, to throw a party where Eisenstein will be suitably humiliated. All the principals end up at Orlovsky’s villa where the revenge of the bat is finally revealed.
Music director Derek Bate certainly understands the Viennese idiom, and in his capable hands, the Strauss score gallops along at frothy, light-hearted speed, with the maestro literally dancing along to the music. On offer is pure Viennese schmaltz, from beginning to end. Bate should also be commended for welding together an excellent singing ensemble in his short rehearsal time. The chorus and principals are particularly effective in Brüderlein und Schwesterlein (titled Sing to love in Ruth and Thomas Martin’s English adaptation).
The singing overall is good, but peculiar — by that, I mean, the voices are very engaging across the board except for the highest register, where the tenors sound strained and the women shrill. Only the baritones escape this fate. Diction is always lamentable with TOT, particularly in the fast sections. For example, the lightning-quick Champagne Song sounds like gibberish. At least in slower tempi, one can make out words. I know it is horribly expensive, but English surtitles of the lyrics would certainly help the enjoyment factor.
The good news is that all the singers can act. Soprano Lara Ciekiewicz (Rosalinda) has the soaring voice that makes you believe that her character was once an opera diva before her marriage. Hers is an attractive sound that fills the house, and she certainly has the good looks of a leading lady. Energetic tenor Adam Fisher (Gabriel Eisenstein) possesses a seductive vibrato, but his delivery is uneven. Just when you think he has a light voice, he pours on the power. It’s difficult to lock onto his sound as a result, but there is certainly talent there. Fisher, however, does tend to be a bit too prance-y in his stage movement. Coloratura soprano Caitlin Wood (Adele) has a strong, vibrant voice. She is certainly not a chirper, as some coloraturas are, but displays heft and weight to her sound. Wood also has the best diction in the cast and a charming stage presence. Tenor Cian Horrobin (Alfred) possesses a clear, bright, ringing voice that really commands the ear. He can certainly toss off opera arias with aplomb. It will be interesting to see where his talent takes him. While the following has nothing to do with Horrobin’s singing, Alfred’s Rigoletto costume shows off the tenor’s great pair of legs. The only fly in the Die Fledermaus ointment, so to speak, is everyone’s aforementioned troublesome highest of the high notes.
Of the secondary characters, baritone Michael Robert-Broder (Dr. Falke) is, perhaps, the most accomplished singer in the cast, given his warm, woody timbre that encompasses an old-fashioned romantic sensibility.
Baritone Janaka Welihinda (Frank) looks like he’s having lots of fun onstage. While his vibrato seems to take away from the strength of his voice, he is a young singer and the power will come in time. Veteran performer Elizabeth Beeler (Prince Orlovsky) is a soprano doing a mezzo role, and her voice does not feel comfortable in the tessitura, although she can certainly act up a storm. At times, however, her Russian accent is impenetrable.
TOT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin does his usual amusing turn as the singing-obsessed jailer Frosch. Rounding out the jovial cast are baritone Sean Curran as Dr. Blind, soprano Olivia Morton as Adele’s sister Sally, and tenor Joshua Clemenger and baritone Yervant Khatchadourian as Orlovsky’s servants, both called Ivan.
As for the fun part, some operettas don’t lend themselves to topical updating, particularly the gypsy-themed ones, but the sophisticated Viennese setting of Die Fledermaus is perfect for tucking in anachronisms. Silva-Marin is a past master at finding the laughs. Because Eisenstein is about to go to jail, we get references to famous ex-cons like Martha Stewart and Lord Conrad Black. Trump comes up as someone who should go to jail, and just saying the word Mississauga always gets a chuckle.
The 19th-century-period costumes come from Malabar, and while Rosalinda and Adele look good, the ladies of the chorus are in ugly colours, rusts and ochres and the like, which is a blot on the landscape. The pace does flag at times, particularly with the overlong Frosch/Alfred scene, but most of the time, the production moves along at a fast clip.
Polymath Silva-Marin functions as stage director, lighting maven, set designer, and choreographer (the latter showcasing his two steps). He is also the purveyor of humour, even to rewriting dialogue and lyrics. His approach to TOT productions may be a bit formulaic, but over the years, Silva-Marin has determined what his audience wants. In the world of operetta, he knows that the tried and true works best.