A sparkling production of Johann Strauss the Younger‘s Die Fledermaus by the Academy of the Paris Opera is being performed at the MC 93 theater in the Paris suburb of Bobigny before touring four French cities. With a terrific cast and orchestra, the joyous operetta is marred only by a weird directorial intervention.
The evening begins not with music and song as one might expect but with a recording of a woman’s voice (she doesn’t identify herself but is presumably the director, Célie Pauthe), talking about her research in preparation for staging the opera. She recounts how she discovered that Strauss had a Jewish ancestor and that the Nazis, who saw his music as “so German,” went to great lengths to cover up this fact, going so far as to doctor the wedding records of the waltz king’s Jewish great-grandfather.
She also discovered that the opera had been performed in the Terezin (or Theresienstadt) concentration camp, where many leading artists and performers were interned, in 1944. To make sure that this would be kept in mind throughout the performance, the backdrop for the action is a film of the grim gray walls of Terezin, once a fortress.
Finally the opera begins, all lighthearted comedy with its complicated plot and many characters in disguise, marked by impressive performances by the youthful cast. The production I saw featured the B cast, with Adriana Gonzalez a brilliant Rosalinde and standout performances by Timothée Varon as Gabriel von Eisenstein, Liubov Medvedeva as Adele and Farrah El Dibany as Prince Orlofsky. The reduced orchestra, conducted by Fayçal Karoui, was also superb.
I loved the economical yet colorful staging as well, with its simple props and costumes, which was evocative rather than spelling everything out. For the party scene, for example, a few frilly dresses, a top hat and lots of colorful confetti thrown into the air were enough to set the scene, while plastic sheeting hung over a rod represented a wall between rooms.
The concentration camp rears its ugly head again just when we were expecting the third act to wind up the operetta. Instead, we are confronted with an actor (or should I say an over-actor?), who explains that the Nazis used Terezin as a model camp to present a false impression of conditions in their camps to the world. He shows excerpts from a film of men, women and children laughing, playing and performing happily in the camp, with the label “Staged Nazi Film” on it.
As horrific as all that is, it’s hard to understand what it is doing in the middle of the performance. I felt like a schoolkid being lectured to. The message is a vital one, of course, but weren’t the recorded introduction and the film of the camp’s walls enough to get it across? The subtlety of the production was belied by this interruption, which seemed all the more jarring as Die Fledermaus continued on its merry way to a happy ending.
That aside, a huge bravo to everyone involved in this boffo production.