Taking Vienna Out of Strauss

Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss at Lowell House, March 16, 17

IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH to whisk an audience off to 19th-century Vienna--a crystal chandelier, rich costumes, goblets filled with champagne, and a willing suspension of cynicism. The only concession Lowell House Opera's production of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus makes to the work's opulence is the chandelier, which you can see any time you eat at the Lowell dining hall.

Strauss built his operetta around the flimsiest of comic opera conventions, but it's loved nonetheless for its infectious waltzes. No matter what performers do to this durable music, it will intoxicate listeners. Lowell's Fledermaus refuses to take Strauss's joie-devivre seriously--which is no sin in itself--but director J. Scott Brumit fails to provide a substitute, leaving the show to wander in a wasteland of farce, sarcasm, and tastelessness.

Most of the performers give the interpretations they've chosen talented treatments, and the singing is impressive for a college production. Perhaps the fact that conservatory students or graduates take all but one of the main roles helps to explain that. But trying to take Vienna out of Strauss is like trying to perform a heart transplant--you'd better have the replacement handy. The first act, for example, could as easily be set in Yonkers as in Vienna. True, the Lowell dining hall has little potential to be converted into a ballroom, but Lowell Opera gives up in despair from the start.

Brumit offers glimpses of a variety of modern interpretations, and sticks to none. Raymond Sepe plays Alfred--the Italian tenor who can't control the urge to break forth in snatches of every showpiece aria in the book--like a disco cruiser hoping to score; William Walton at one point debases Eisenstein to use Steve Martin's "wild and crazy guy" line; and Mary Ann Martini gives Prince Orlofsky a German-accented sadism that's hard to take along with Strauss's froth.

All these quirky ideas conflict with each other and Strauss's score. Worse, they muddle even further a typically inane--though enjoyable--operetta plot. "Fledermaus" means "bat," but the title has almost no relation to the story of marital cheatings, mixed identities, and revenge. In fact, as the plot wanders from Eisenstein's home to Orlofsky's ballroom to the local jail, you realize that it's all just an excuse for the dance music. In the famous trio "So muss allein ich bleiben" ("I must remain alone, then"), Rosalinda--whom Gretchen Johnson plays with vocal agility but no sense of style--begins lamenting her parting with husband Einstein. But she, Eisenstein, and Alfred the mad Italian tenor keep breaking out of the mock tragic music into a perky little waltz, as if to tip the audience off that nothing happening on the stage is terribly important.


In the ballroom of the second act, too--famous for Orlofsky's aria "Chacun a son gout" as well as some of Strauss's best dances--the waltz should be king. Even though the Lowell performers cut much of Strauss's music, deliver the rest on a distinctly un-Viennese stage, and have to work on the less-than-ballroom-size Lowell dias, they can't help unleashing the waltzes by the end of the act, and a little of the Wienerblut seeps in.

Some of the players do play their parts traditionally, adding to the general lack of direction. Ellen Gambulos's Adele, the chambermaid who wants to be a star, showed a delicate voice and solid acting, except on occasions when she allows her pride in her steely top notes show. Brumit brings a rich, deep voice and commanding presence to Frank, the jailer; and Corey Stone '79 plays Falke, the "Dr. Fledermaus" bent on revenge, with flair, though his voice is comparatively bland.

These unmannered performances clash with the weirder ones, and the orchestra only aggravates the confusion. Its poor quality--ragged ensembles, missed cues, and squeaky strings--weakens the production immensely, and the musicians play right next to much of the audience so it can hear every flub, and wince. Whether conductor Nicholas Palmer '79 or the musicians themselves are to blame, they seem to have much trouble with Strauss' relatively easy music.

Producing opera at the college level takes guts, and it would be patently unfair to expect professional quality singing and playing from a group like Lowell House Opera. What's frustrating about this Fledermaus, though, is that the singing is the strongest part of the show. If the orchestra were better prepared and the director had replaced Strauss's Vienna coherently, Lowell's Fledermaus could please everyone. As it stands, the program lists the show's time-setting as "uncertain"--a word you might better apply to the whole affair.