Opera Wilmington is solidifying its position as one of the Port City’s most successful performing groups. It is now formally affiliated with the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and this year’s series of four performances is a centerpiece of UNCW’s expanded Lumina Festival, now over two weeks long and including music, theatre, dance, and more. Wilmington has become the home of a substantial summer arts festival of a scope normally seen only in much bigger cities.

The opera for this year is Die Fledermaus (The Bat), the waltz and polka-filled operetta by Johann Strauss, Jr. It may be Opera Wilmington’s best production yet.

The cast was consistently strong. Adele, the high-flying chamber maid, was sung by Michelle Lerch, of Leland, with a real presence; her initial entrance fairly grabbed the stage. Her voice moved with perfect smoothness over the entire range, including to fabulous high notes. Here, where great lightness was called for, she was effervescent. It was clear, however, that she also has richness and dramatic range.

Shannon Kessler Dooley sang the role of Rosalinda, a well-to-do wife muddling through with a lecherous husband – though the joke is eventually on him. Dooley sang with sparkle, wonderful high notes, and excellent blending with Lerch. Her Hungarian aria in the second act carried sentimental weight and had a fine ending.

Gabriel von Eisenstein, the good-natured ne’er-do-well in question, was sung by Joshua Collier. His strong, ringing voice gave his character a fine presence. Only at the top of his range was he less fully compelling.

In the big second act, Prince Orlofsky was portrayed by Cera Finney. She sang with élan, with a light, flexible sound which gave her sparkle in her solos and a fine combination of tone with the sopranos.

Die Fledermaus is a piece in which stage antics are important, right along with the singing. All of the characters were successful in acting. Adele played it up all the way, lamenting her “poor sick aunt” and was very funny in her “laughing song”; Rosalinda haughtily took over the stage as the Hungarian Countess; and Eisenstein was funny in many places, including his silly exchange with Frank, the prison warden, in mangled French.

The third act brought us Frosch (German for frog), the jailer. This final act takes place early on New Year’s Day, with the jailer almost in a drunken stupor. Gina Gambony was very funny in this non-singing role; she stumbled around and comically misunderstood half of what was said. Her German accent – well-done, it should be added – was an analog of the heavy dialect one would hear in this role in Vienna. Done up in a fat suit, her performance was a highlight of the show. The Austrian emperor Franz Josef stared down on all this tomfoolery from a large portrait on the wall.

The lawyer Blind (he’s not, but may as well be, for the quality of his legal counsel) was played with amusing stuttering and shuffling by Carl Samet. John Dooley‘s Dr. Falke had an extroverted ease. Frank, the prison warden, had wonderfully exuberant dialogues with von Eisenstein. Adele’s sister Ida was sung appealingly by Suzette Hartsfield. Melvin Ezzell sang the role of Rosalinda’s lover Alfred and brought out the high tenor passion which makes her ask him to please talk, not sing, so she won’t be seduced again.

The chorus, which has a large role in the ball scene of Act II, sang with energy and verve and, most of the time, with rhythmic precision. They also danced successfully, with quite a bit of action during the act.

Die Fledermaus can be done with topical insertions. In Vienna, jokes may be made, for instance, about goings-on in the other opera house (the city has two). Here, there were references to a popular Wilmington restaurant, and an area business figure was introduced to join the ball. The children’s chorus from the Opera Wilmington camp appealingly sang a favorite number from Hansel and Gretel, and John Callison, well-known here, sang the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen, the work done last year by Opera Wilmington. It’s worth mentioning that the former opera hadn’t been written yet, and the latter was probably unknown to Strauss when Die Fledermaus was composed, but it all fit fine and in good fun as a series of display performances during the ball.

The production was very effectively directed by Nancy King, Opera Wilmington’s artistic director. The stage picture was always lively, with characters interacting energetically. In the second act, the stage fairly flooded with people for the big ball. Here, the choreography by Nancy Podrasky Carson took center stage. Again, movement was lively, and sometimes tiered. Two solo dancers were an effective part of the festivities. By the time the party was over at 6:00 AM, everyone was drunk, and their dancing in that state was quite amusing.

The costumes (Mark D. Sorensen) were rich and colorful. The scenes of elegant people were visually engaging in the variety of dress.

The sets (Max Lydy) worked with a similar layout in each of the three acts and effectively evoked each of the scenes. The wooden floor gave a solid and consistent underpinning. The straightforward lighting (Tara Noland) took on atmosphere in the second act, with slowly rotating lights suggesting a low-key disco effect at the ball.

The orchestra, consisting of some of the top players in Wilmington, performed well. Occasional points of rhythmic imprecision lessened as the opera went on. At times, as at the end of the second act, they captured the special Viennese waltz rhythm and made the listener feel that Old Vienna was right there on the stage. Joe Hickman, the conductor, also carried out the major work of reducing the orchestration to the size which could be used in this production.

It was announced from the stage that Opera Wilmington’s 2019 production will be Puccini’s La Bohème. This will be eagerly awaited.

The performance repeats Sunday, July 29. See the sidebar for details.