THE BLOG
01/01/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 03, 2014

First Nighter: The Met's New "Die Fledermaus" Far Too Batty

Die Fledermaus back again as the Metropolitan Opera's New Year's Eve gala confection? Directed by Jeremy Sams, who also supplied the revised lyrics, and Douglas Carter Beane, who provided updated dialogue, it's more like Deflated Maus.

No one will argue against taking liberties with Johann Strauss, Jr's 1874 operetta, book by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée. Just as raising the curtain on Die Fledermaus when December 31 rolls around has been a Met tradition, jollying the work has been traditional as well. Fun-lovers like Garson Kanin and Howard Dietz and Betty Comden and Adolph Green have tackled it for previous revivals.

The problem here is that Sams, whose The Enchanted Island premiered New Year's Eve two years ago was far more successful, and Beane take the kind of liberties that can put you in mind of a drunk crossing the boulevard against heavy traffic. You watch concerned that at any moment calamity will ensue. Often it does.

But before I get into the particulars of what makes this return register as cruel and unusual punishment, it's important to state that conductor Adam Fischer shoulders none of the blame. Strauss's spirited melodies don't have to be explained here, and neither does Fischer's commitment to them. His presentation of the overture at the opening performance couldn't have been more ebullient, and he kept the musical sparkling at that level throughout.

Neither can the singers be held responsible for the myriad setbacks. Susanna Phillips as errant wife Rosalinde von Eisenstein, Michael Fabiano as her returning former lover Alfred, Christopher Maltman as irritated and irritating hubby Gabriel von Eisenstein and Jane Archibald as chambermaid-passing-for-Russian-actress-at-Prince-Orlofsky's-ball Adele were bright and silvery--although perhaps Archibald might have been a trifle more giddy for the beloved laughing song.

Less impressive, indeed too bombastic, on opening night at least, were Anthony Roth Costanzo as the prince and Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, who's put his revenge plot into motion to catch the von Eisensteins. It isn't unfair to say that both could be cited for bleating when they should have been comically blaring.

That, however, leads to Sams's inadequate direction and Beane's contributions, which are riddled with lame jokes too off-putting to be quoted here--many of them mocking opera and theater, tee-hee. (Beane's work is less offensive than the revised book he unloaded on the current Broadway re-run of the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers Cinderella.)

Possibly among the least of the Sams-Beane transgressions is their putting Yiddishisms like "shlemiel" into the mouths of upper-class Viennese. And, to give Sams his due, at one point he inserts the lyric "soirée with a binge on top," as a joke on Oklahoma!'s "Surrey With a Fringe on Top." Unfortunately, that morsel went by so fast, it's questionable whether many auditors took it in.

The dominant Die Fledermaus drawback is the direction (though Stephen Mear's choreography isn't a boon, either). Such mugging and gesticulating undermines any possibility of genuine humor in the tale of supposedly risible mistaken-identity conflicts at a sumptuous ball. It may be that Sams was asked to handle singers uncertain about how to be funny. If so, he's taken precisely he wrong approach. Rather than telling them simply to behave as if they were serious about their intermingled plights--which the characters are--he seems to have instilled in them the belief that they must toil like railroad laborers to be amusing. They totally are not.

There is one exception: Danny Burstein. Lifted from his recent series of winning Great White Way performances (The Drowsy Chaperone, South Pacific and Follies, among them), he's taken on the third act role of the prison guard Frosch, which the adorable Jack Gilford played 77 times. Addressing the audience--"I've broken the fourth wall," he quips--he gets laugh after laugh for his shenanigans.

Burstein scored so consistently that an observer might be excused for wondering whether--after having been handed Beane's lines--the actor decided he'd better tweak them. Short of phoning him, there's no way to prove the theory, but lending it credence is what happens when he ceases his in-one monologue and joins the exchanges with the other figures. Suddenly, he's not so yukkable.

(Betsy Wolfe, another Main Stem import (The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the up-coming Bullets Over Broadway), fares far less well when cavorting like a banshee as Adele's chorus-girl sister Ida.)

Set and costume designer Robert Jones is another participant excused from theatrical misdemeanors. The drawing room he's imagined for Rosalinde and Gabriel, with its dominating Gustav Klimt-like portraits, has the appeal of a jewel box. Even more opulent is Prince Orlofsky's ballroom, which is covered with a magnificent half-dome of golden leaf-covered branches.

The black-and-gold clothes that those invited to the flying-bat festivity wear are equally breath-taking--although perhaps they and the sets are stunning to a fault. Seeing such a large amount of money going towards the deficient project is dismaying.

Twice in the opera--which this outing has been set on New Year's Eve 1899--the carousing contingent exclaim in song, "All we need to more champagne." Sorry, but when operetta champagne is this flat, observers have the right to put their figurative hands over their figurative flutes and declare a polite, "I've had enough, thank you."