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Opera Workshop Review Print

Marking the Opera Workshop's 50th Anniversary, Duke's English Fledermaus Sets New Standards

April 18, 2009 - Durham, NC:

It's always a big deal at Duke when the program is more than a single sheet of paper..., and for the University's Opera Workshop production of Die Fledermaus, by J. Strauss II, the handout encompassed eight times that. There was of course the cast listing, a précis, the names of the orchestral musicians, and a page of program notes by director Susan Dunn, revered as one of America's great operatic sopranos, and by conductor Scott Tilley, who prepared the highly effective instrumental reduction that was employed. Three pages of company bios and a page of credits and acknowledgements rounded out the program.

The production was offered in Baldwin Auditorium, which is a decent room for music, both played and sung. The pit band, which consisted of eight strings plus flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, and piano – they are all first-rate area professionals – sounded fine under Tilley’s expert direction, playing what he himself characterized as a “Palm Court Orchestra” edition of the score that was clean, clear, transparent, and effective; the small ensemble made life considerably easier than it would otherwise have been for the youthful cast of singers. (That this was at least the second time that Tilley has conducted Fledermaus in Durham – he led a production for Triangle Opera quite some time ago – was a big plus, too.) The work was sung in Ruth and Thomas Martin’s classic English translation, a version that sets well on the voice and on the ear. It was updated somewhat to include contemporary references – to a certain headache medicine, a famous Durham eatery (Bullock’s), and so on.

The sets were simple painted drops and a few pieces of furniture – this was more than sufficient to create all the necessary visual impressions as the show wended its way from the Eisenstein’s place to Prince Orlovsky’s ballroom to the municipal slammer.

The story is well known, since this is one of the most popular operas in the repertory. Basically, it’s a tale of payback to a partying and philandering pillar of society (Eisenstein), who left a pal (Falke) to sleep it off on a bench in a public park – in a bat costume (“Fledermaus” being the German word for “bat”). The scenario includes assumed and mistaken identities, a (literally) mindless tenor, some cross-dressing, and enough alcohol to make the work a staple of New Year’s Eve celebrations wherever booze is not proscribed. (Remember Oscar Wilde’s maxim: Work is the curse of the drinking class.) The score includes some of music’s frothiest and most delightful tunes, served up in gem-like settings that demonstrated why its creator was known throughout the world as “The Waltz King” – and why he was the envy of countless less productive composers who invested a good deal more blood, sweat, and tears in their scores than JSII seemed to put into his.

The cast was remarkably strong, particularly given the fact that all but three are undergrads. The lone pro among them was Sandra Cotton, a member of the Music Department faculty, whose small but handsome mezzo voice enriched the role of Orlovsky, the Prince who hosts the party scene that is Act II. Vocally, the star of the show was Sara Womble, whose coloratura singing as Adele was consistently impressive – based on this single hearing, this student of Elizabeth Linnartz has fine potential. Tenor Daniel Helfer (Alfred) got off to a slow start in his offstage carrying-on but quickly warmed to his part. Page Stephens (Rosalinda) sang and acted well but seemed challenged by projection at times; that she was not alone in this makes one think that, small as the band was, there were times when somewhat less instrumental sound would have helped. Andrew Bevan (Eisenstein) was a cool customer whose banter and singing more than satisfied his role’s requirements. Evan Wisser (Falke) was a tall, pencil-thin, and consistently elegant prankster whose cool and aloof approach to getting even with Eisenstein endeared him to the substantial audience. Others in the cast included Robert Owen (Blind, the perhaps aptly-named lawyer), Brian Adams (Frank, the prison warden), Rachel Williamson (Sally), Anthony Alberti (Ivan), and David Womble (Igor and Frosch, a jailer). The ensemble – party guests, dancers, and the like – was rounded out by Monica Villar, Robyn Schmidt, Katie Yang, Markos Simopoulos, and Jason Lee – singers who range from freshmen through seniors – plus grad students Rachael Posey and Jianghai Ho. The chorus master was pianist Kate Lewis.

The stage portal was by Kenmark and the drops, by Grosch; the costumes were from the UNCSA, Jannie Davis, and the Raleigh Little Theatre; some of the stage furnishings came from Meredith College; Jay O’Berski did the lighting; and the coaches included David Heid, Wayne Lail, Elizabeth Linnartz, Penelope Jensen, and Sandra Cotton. The family team of Susan Dunn and her husband Scott Tilley provided the glue that held all the contributors together in a single and ultimately triumphant artistic pursuit. Dunn put it best in the last paragraph of her program note:

“The operetta you see today represents a school year’s work. The production is the end product of many hands and hearts. From the students themselves, to the stage crew, the costume mistress [Susan Worthington-White], the orchestra, the conductor, many people have made this entertainment possible. We hope you enjoy the sum total of our work together this year. Chacun à son goût [to each his own]!”