Dec. 10 saw the premiere of the Latvian National Opera’s (LNO) new production of “Die Fledermaus,” the beloved operetta of Johann Strauss. Unseen in Riga since 1997, this season’s production is led by two newcomers to the genre, Music Director Janis Liepins and Stage Director Edmunds Freibergs. “Die Fledermaus” is Liepins’ first production as music director, having worked previously as a conductor for Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and two ballets, Glazunov’s “Raymonda” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Freibergs has not worked at the LNO since 1997; he is a prominent actor and director at the Latvian National Theater.
Like most productions at the LNO, “Die Fledermaus” was anchored by strong singing and competent musical leadership. Liepins more than held his own in navigating the more difficult challenges of Strauss’ score, and lead performers Janis Apeinis (Eisenstein) and Margarita Vilsone (Rosalinde) shined with powerful, nuanced vocals. If there was a weak spot among the cast, it was in Raimonds Bramanis’ Alfred. The tenor’s delivery of the role’s highest passages was largely unsuccessful.
The LNO’s production is unique in the directorial choice to deliver the spoken lines in Latvian rather than the original German. According to Freibergs, the choice was made to perform the libretto in the vernacular of the audience while maintaining the German arias and choruses; the nuances of Strauss’ vocal writing could not be maintained in translation.
This somewhat unorthodox choice was a good one; the audience, which included Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, responded to the humor and irony in the edited libretto by Peteris Petersons. Inga Slubovska-Kancevica delivered her Adele with particularly acute comedic timing.
It was somewhat surprising, given Freibergs’ acting background, that the acting was particularly weak from several performers. Apeinis’ lines felt forced and ill-timed, while Bramanis overplayed the gregariousness of his Alfred. With most roles double- or triple-cast in this season’s production, it’s possible that other performers will offer more convincing presentations.
In line with the choice to speak Latvian was the directorial choice to set the production in a modern-day bourgeoisie society. In his program notes, Freibergs states his desire for the production to serve as a mirror to “our own virtues and faults.” However, upon looking at the over-the-top Miami-esque stage design and flamboyant costumes, one wonders who Freibergs expected to attend the production.
With dialogue referencing Vienna, spoken language in Latvian, and a borderline tropical stage design, it seemed as if aesthetic decisions were made with no clear vision in mind. Equally confusing was the choreography of Alberts Kivlenieks; the awkward movements demanded of Slubovska-Kancevica and Apeinis made the production look amateurish.
The LNO Orchestra anchored this production with strong all-around playing and particularly impressive solo passages from Principal Oboist Peteris Endzelis. Liepins should be commended for bringing dynamic contrast and steady tempos to The Waltz King’s lengthy score; waltz numbers that could have been unremarkable felt fresh and lively.
Krisjanis Norvelis should be commended for an all-around well sung and acted Frank; his role in the Act I Finale brought levity to somewhat stilted acting from Vilsone and Bramanis.
“Die Fledermaus” will continue at the LNO through the first week of March.