IE FLEDERMAUS, operetta by Johann Strauss, presented by The Opera Company of Boston, Sarah Caldwell, artistic director, in The Opera House Friday night.
Sarah Caldwell's four-hour "Fledermaus" is a marathon of muddle and magic, and a lot of the magic has everything to do with Beverly Sills, who is bidding farewell to her Boston public in this production.
Sills was a highly experienced but hardly celebrated soprano of 33 when Sarah Caldwell coaxed her out of her Milton home to sing Manon 17 years ago. Since then theirs has developed into one of the great partnerships of contemporary opera: Sills has stimulated some of Caldwell's greatest theatrical achievements; Caldwell, in tandem and in turn, has brought out the best of Sills.
There is a sense in which this final "Fledermaus" was intended to reflect all of that, and sum it up. Sills is at the center of nearly everything in the show. The cast reunites the people who have joined with her in creating some triumphant evenings here - Joseph Evans, Alan Titus, Robert Trehy (who sang in that very first "Manon"), and, of course, the great Donald Gramm, who in the minds of most of us in Boston is more closely linked with Sills than any tenor she has ever sung with. The sets and costumes (by Herbert Senn & Helen Pond and Ray Diffen, respectively) are a modish and monotonous black-and-white, leaving Sills as the only explosion of color on stage. The scraps of tenor arias that Joseph Evans sings as a part of his character (an opera singer) are all from works Sills appeared in here. "Additional lyrics and dialogues" by Lisi Oliver point up the special circumstances of these performances - "A great star like you can never retire," Evans says to the soprano, "your public won't stand for it." (The rapture of applause in the audience at that moment suggests that the public will indeed not stand for it - and why should it?). Even the standard English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin joins in the fun - everybody knows by now that "Bubbles" refers to something better than what animates champagne.
There are wonderful things in Caldwell's production, beginning with a real understanding of why "Die Fledermaus" holds the stage more than 100 years after it was written. Yes, the music is effervescent and irresistible; yes, the plot is a solid construction. But what matters most are the people, all of them richly comic because each of them self-deceived as he or she sets out to deceive others - each of them is fully human. Caldwell realizes that and every character has something original and convincing to do; the "laughing song" of the chambermaid Adele, for example, is not the conventional soubrettish giggle, but a taunt and a challenge. And maybe the loveliest moment in the whole show comes midway in the second act during the ensemble when the characters interrupt their
scheming and sing of their brotherhood, slowly and one-by-one linking their arms until everyone onstage is joined in an affirmation of their common humanity. To this one can add some terrific sight gags, a very skillful evasion of the ballet problem devised by Graciela Daniele (banquet waiters anticipating "Hello Dolly" replace the Court Ballet), and a variety of delightful performances - the comic tenorial singlemindedness of Evans as Alfredo, the vividly fatuous characterization of Eisenstein by Titus, Trehy's resonant singing, the inspired clowning of Victor Borge as the drunken jailor who keeps a Boesendorfer piano in cell 13, the accomplished singing of Costanza Cuccaro as Adele and her appealingly homespun personality, and Donald Gramm's mastery of every operatic art.
But there is a comparable list of things that went wrong (and of things Beverly Sills deserves better than). There was terrible miscasting (baritone Titus had trouble with his tenor music; Victor Borge cannot sing at all, and simply threw the rich part of Prince Orlovsky away). There were constant and pointless scene changes, and there was fussy and pointless stage business; some episodes seemed feverishy overstaged, while others seemed not to have been rehearsed adequately, or at all. Jokes fell flat or, worse, got in the way of the music; there was no attempt to deal with the accent problem, no consistency of comic or even of musical style, and, all too often, no style at all. At its worst this production seemed like the kind of New Year's Party where everyone is grimly, manaically (and hopelessly) determined not to get depressed.
But in the midst of all of this there was always Beverly Sills. Her singing no longer has much to do with classical bel canto, but it still has everything to do with its aims: Every note she sings is still alive with personality, character, and emotion. (One bit, however, "Voce di primavera," which is not from the original "Fledermaus" at all, but a special party interpolation, was in its vernal brilliance a more than adequate reminder that Sills' was one of the greatest of all contemporary coloratura techniques). And she remains one of the most vividly colorful and eminently lovable of stage personalities. She looked fabulous in her costumes, and this Rosalinde contemplated the possibility of adultery the way a cat eyes the cream; more remarkable, perhaps, was the way Sills indicated that the exhilarating game of seducing her own husband was one that hurts to play at.
The staging of the end of the opera was a mess; nothing was done to focus our attention either on Rosalinde or on Beverly Sills' last moments onstage here - she was just part of a crowded and confusing lineup. On the other hand, that was in its way an appropriate kind of tribute too, for Beverly Sills has always been the most admirable kind of star, the kind that twinkled, or that shone steadily, as a part of a larger constellation and pattern, when she might have stood alone and apart, a blinding radiance of red.