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As a rule, performances of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus do not excite me. There are so many deserving operas that ought to be staged - Janácek's, for example - that I resent their chances being lost to fluff. However, having been very impressed by the Virginia Opera Association's productions of Wagner's Die Walküre and Giordano's Andrea Chénier (reviewed by CVNC), I was intrigued to see how they would bring off the light comedy of a classic Viennese operetta. A full house in Richmond's Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts March 30 matinee was rewarded with a seamless confection of effervescent farce, given in English, in the classic version by Ruth and Thomas Martin.
Musical matters were well in hand in the pit, with members of the Virginia Symphony under the able direction of conductor Dan Saunders. His credentials include serving as an assistant conductor to James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg and Ravinia Festivals as well as four seasons at the Glimmerglass Opera. This was the seventh performance of this VOA touring production. Ensemble between the pit and stage was tight while the orchestra was well balanced with crisp articulation. There were fine woodwind and brass solos. Saunders brought a stylish application of ritardando and accelerando to the phrasing.
The staging by Scenic Designer Erhard Rom was superb, and ideal lighting was provided by Designer Kenneth Steadman. The stage was dominated by a scrim, upon which was painted the well-known Viennese monument to composer Johann Strauss, leading with his violin. Act I's set evoked an upper-class apartment with French windows opening upon a garden. Act II was a stylized palace where Prince Orlofsky's party takes place. Huge paintings by the Viennese Hans Makart - "The Five Senses" and "Bacchus and Ariadne" - dominated the stage. Caging and spartan furniture in Act III suggested the prison, while the huge "Bacchus" painting, hanging askew, was meant to allude to the hung-over state of most of the characters.
One of the earliest opera reviews I wrote praised the work of Stage Director Dorothy Danner (actress Blyth Danner's sister) in the Piedmont Opera's production of Massenet's Manon . Her program notes state that " Die Fledermaus is a product of... the pleasure-crazed world [of the Vienna of Franz Josef]. In former productions I wrestled with the frothiness of this work, but now I embrace it as [a] perfect valentine to that manic time, which we now know was collapsing underneath them, much like dancing on the Titanic ." While by no means literal and pedantic, she is not one of those directors who impose their singular vision of a piece in a manner at cross-purposes to that of the composer.
All stage business contributed to establishing and reinforcing character. During the Overture, through the scrim, one saw Eisenstein in a butterfly costume leave his drunken friend, Dr. Falke, in a public square where he awakened in his bat costume (" Die Fledermaus " of course means "The bat" in German) to public censure. Revenge for this prank motivated Falke's manipulations of all the characters that drive the plot of the opera.
All the major performers combined excellent vocalism with skilled acting and tight ensemble work; they even managed to hold their own with the dancers in the polka and waltz portions of Act II. Soprano Suzan Hanson, possessing a firm and even dramatic soprano voice, managed fine coloratura when needed and was gorgeous as the wronged Rosalinde (or Rosalinda, in this version). As her husband, Eisenstein, Tracey Welborn's solid tenor was easily projected. He combined the qualities of a jealous husband with those of the former (maybe?) playboy about town with his "chick-attracting-watch." (We had been impressed by his portrayal of Pylade in Gluck's Iphigénie et Tauride at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. 2000.) Lyndy Simons's coloratura was sterling, and her comic timing, flawless, as Rosalinde's maid Adele. Nat Chandler looked like a young Bert Parks (apt as the master of these revels) and brought a firm, even baritone to his dominating portrayal of Falke. More than once I thought of the comic timing of Chico Marx while watching the athletic antics of tenor Dean Anthony, who embodied the clueless tenor and former boyfriend of Rosalinde. His platform shoes brought a whole new level of meaning to the word! He also doubled in the role of Ivan, Orlofsky's aide, a non-speaking role. As the bored Russian Count Orlofsky, mezzo-soprano Elspeth Franks' aquiline nose combined with a cigarette holder reminded me of Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in Batman . Her comic timing was excellent and her whole body language evoked ennui. Baritone David Barron brought a firm and well-projected voice to the role of the prison warden, Frank. Minor character roles were also well cast - Devorah Williams as Adele's friend Sally, Tim Morton (a former music critic) as the drunken jailer Frosch, and Nicholas Wuehrmann as the inept stuttering lawyer, Dr. Blind.
The choreographer was not credited in the program, but the four dancers - Kenneth Aquino, Aaron Pauly, Scott Shaddock, and the irrepressible Anthony (referred to as "The Tumbling Tenor") - excelled in athletic high jinks in vigorous Slavic folkdances. Most of the cast joined in the waltz as well as the interpolated "Thunder and Lightning Polka."
The quality of diction was extraordinarily high, so the supertitles were not really needed. The digital dot-matrix supertitle unit used at Carpenter Center is the easiest to read of any of I have seen in three states.
The very high production values of the Virginia Opera Association make a day trip from the Triangle or Triad to catch a Sunday matinee in Richmond well worth the effort. Their last production this season, in May, will be Puccini's La Bohème.