by Chris Davis
It's been said— usually by tipsy revelers — that Champagne coupes were originally modeled from life-casts of Marie Antoinette's breasts. That's complete bunk of course but a cocktail party's success isn't measured as much by the potency of its potables as it is by the effervescence of the conversations they unlock. Surely this trivial anti-fact, trotted out with a fresh round of drinks, has fulfilled its lurid purpose and facilitated more than a few private fittings. It's the same intoxicating combination of hooch and sexual tomfoolery that makes Johann Strauss's comic opera Die Fledermaus such a guilty pleasure. Well, that and a relentlessly perfect score with all the fizz and flavor of a freshly popped bottle of 1928 Krug
Nothing exceeds like excess and Die Fledermaus is a textbook example of abundant pointlessness. It's a sprawling, stumbling, slurring, fondling bourgeois fantasy about booze, fraternity pranks, sexual indiscretions (all badly managed), and even more booze. And jail. And weird disguises, and things of that nature. Opera Memphis's production under the direction of Ned Canty, the company's new head honcho, is a giddy, gimmick-laden good time. It's easy on they eyes and candy for the ears.
Canty comes to Opera by way of the theater. His background is Shakespeare. Comedy is his specialty and he's promised Memphis audiences to go out of his way to find the best singers who are also the best actors. So far, so good. As promised, the new director suits the action to the word and isn't afraid of a little burlesque. For Die Fledermaus he's populated the stage at Germantown Performing Arts Center with a charismatic cast of singers who collectively transform Strauss's comedy into a three-and-a-half hour Carol Burnett sketch complete with near crack-ups.
Elizabeth Reiter shows off her facility with high notes and low comedy as Adele, the socially-climbing chambermaid. She may be the brightest spot in an already well-lit room. Caroline Worra and Dominic Armstrong are also perfectly paired as the promiscuous Eisensteins, a husband and wife whose middle class values are always at odds with their sexual appetites.
In 2011 Opera Memphis launched a campaign to convince Justin Timberlake to make a guest apperance as Frosh, the drunken jailer. That didn't work out, but Canty's second choice is no less inspired: Ann Marie Hall. The local actor's comic gifts are well chronicled and she channels Harpo Marx, Foster Brooks, and every bumbling cop who ever stepped in front of Mack Sennett's movie camera. Timberlake would have been a coups but alone Hall's gags are worth the price of admission. The rest is so much chocolate gravy.
Canty has said he'll never apologize for opera. He wants to find interesting ways to approach and celebrate the form's excess and absurdity, funny wigs and all. Mission accomplished on that score too. There may not be any circus elephants stunt-copulating to entertain Prince Orlofsky's guests, but it's easy to watch the party onstage and believe that might actually be happening in the wings.
Lushly-imagined but relatively simple scenic elements pack a lot of brush strokes into a few deft gestures. A giant funhouse mirror sits down right, sharing space with obscenely large reproductions of voluptuous Renaissance nudes and an over-the-top frolic between nymphs and centaurs set into what absolutely has to be the hugest gilded frame in town. It's all too much and that's just right.
Still, one can easily over-indulge on sweets and sometimes Canty's production threatens to pop its buttons. It could have been streamlined by cutting a superfluous, show-stealing guest appearance by the Stax Academy singers who nail an a capella medley of gospel and soul that climaxes with a hot do-wop interpretation of Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft." It's a sugary pallate clenser between desert courses and jarringly incongruous. But the kids are so good it's tempting to call for an encore.
Canty introduced the second act by announcing a contest. All of the party guests, he said, were dressed as characters from famous operas and ten free tickets would be donated to Memphis City Schools for every letter Opera Memphis received correctly identifying ten of them. Game on, right? I immediately recognized Otello from Otello, Rigoletto from Rigoletto, Cio-Cio San from Madame Butterfly, and Escamillo the Toreador from Carmen. Carmen was there too. Salome was easy because she carried John the Baptist's head on a plate. And who could miss Brunhilde? But was that Siegfried with her? Was the guy in the three-cornered hat Don Giovani or just some other guy in a three-cornered hat? And will I get credit for guessing Falstaff even if I'm wrong because that big guy with the beard is undeniably Falstaffian? There I was, a compulsive trivia geek gawking at a pair of women in short terry cloth robes, trying desperately to remember whether or not Phillip Glass had ever set an opera at the Playboy mansion, with absolutely no idea what was transpiring in Die Fledermaus.
Oh well, it's not like it's hard to catch back up with the plot.
Program notes recall Canty's first encounter with Die Fledermaus, working on a production directed by the famously catty Match Game regular Charles Nelson Reilly. "Charles taught me three important things," he says.
1. A prop in comedy must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. One should always have a backup toupee in your car in case of a surprise photo shoot.
3. Opera has a capacity to delight an audience like no other art form.
I don't know if #3 is true or not but Canty is obviously a believer and with Die Fledermaus he, his cast, Maestro Stephen Osgood, and the musicians of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra make an awfully strong case. Any cork and collar popping is fully justified.
For ticket information and details, here's the link.