WASHINGTON, December 4, 2012 – Frothy and fun, the Virginia Opera’s holiday production of Johann Strauss the Younger’s classic light opera, Die Fledermaus, brightened the stage of George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this past Friday and Sunday. Always a crowd pleaser and usually sung these days in English, at least in the U.S., the company’s production boasted lavish period costumes, decadent drawing room sets designed by the popular Erhard Rom, and best of all, decent singing for the most part.
Although the 1874 premiere of Fledermaus was a flop, due largely to extraordinary circumstances, the opera quickly recovered and remains one of the most performed operatic works in the repertoire even to this day. The key to the opera’s success is not due at all to its supremely silly plot, but to the nonstop cavalcade of beloved Johann Strauss dance tunes that flow almost continuously, from the initial downbeat of its popular overture to the last bar of the finale.
“Die Fledermaus”—literally “the flying mouse”—is actually the German term for “bat.” But Strauss’ eponymous opera has nothing to do with Dracula and Transylvania. Instead, its gossamer-thin plot revolves around a point-counterpoint of practical jokes.
Early in Act I we learn that, prior to the opera’s opening curtain, the opera’s central character, Gabriel von Eisenstein (baritone Philip Cutlip), had pranked his pal, Dr. Falke (baritone Christopher Burchett), at a costume ball some time in the near past. He’d allowed his drunken friend to pass out and sleep it off on a very public park bench, fully costumed as a bat, which exposed Falke to considerable public ridicule when he awoke the following morning.
Now it’s Dr. Falke’s turn to demonstrate that turnabout is fair play. Eisenstein is about to be jailed for a few days, the result of a minor altercation. But Falke convinces Eisenstein to head for a gala Christmas party the very evening his friend is supposed to surrender to the jail’s warden, Frank (bass-baritone Jake Gardner).
The party is a set-up, of course, staged by Falke at the lavish home of the Russian Count Orlovsky (mezzo Abigail Nims in a trouser role), with the Count’s collusion.
Meanwhile, back at the Eisenstein ranch, Eisenstein’s missus, Rosalinde (soprano Emily Pulley), is tempted to resume her long-ago affair with her former lover, the omnipresent Alfred (tenor Ryan MacPherson), but manipulates him into going to jail in the place of her husband. Ultimately, Rosalinde and her crafty maid, Adele (soprano Sarah Jane McMahon), show up in disguise at the big party. When Eisenstein, Falke, warden Frank, and all the others show up, predictable chaos ensues as Eisenstein attempts to seduce his own wife. It’s the Revenge of the Bat.
With such a flimsy plot, it’s the theatrical color and the music that bring any production of Fledermaus to life and this one was no exception. The singing, while not particularly brilliant, was workmanlike, burnished by the remarkably canny comic instincts of the singers.
The best singing during Friday evening’s performance, at least as far as we’re concerned, was turned in by Sarah Jane McMahon as Adele. She took a bright, sunny, devil-may-care attitude toward her character, accentuating it in her singing, and it added real life to the evening. Philip Cutlip was also quite good as the befuddled Eisenstein, although both he and soprano Emily Pulley (Rosalinde) exhibited signs of vocal strain more than once.
Christopher Burchett’s Falke was good as the evening’s master manipulator and resident bat, Ryan MacPherson’s interpretation of Alfred as a vain Italian tenor added to the amusement factor, and Jake Gardner was in excellent voice as Frank. On the other hand, Abigail Nims seemed a little uncomfortable as Count Orlovsky, although she sang well.
An extra hat tip to stage actor and comic Grant Neal, who led off Act III as the jail attendant, Frosh, traditionally an improv comedy bit that’s become an integral part of Fledermaus, where audiences have learned to expect wry references to contemporary politics and events in Frosh’s snappy patter. In the main, Mr. Neal’s patter was generally on target and his slapstick skills were superb.
The company was ably accompanied by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gary Thor Wedow. Stage direction by Dorothy Danner was expansive, broadly comic, and highly effective in the various dance routines that are a highlight of Act II. The production’s only downside was its relatively lame English translation. On the other hand, the cast’s diction was generally superb—particularly that of Ms. McMahon—which helped the entire confection go down quite smoothly.
Rating: ** (Two out of four stars)
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