Syracuse Opera’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ bubbles over with fun, laughter and irresistible music
The company uncorks its 40th Anniversary season with a visually and musically satisfying production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s farcical operetta
First, a disclaimer: If you attend Sunday’s final production of Die Fledermaus, don’t come expecting anything even remotely serious. This isn’t Don Giovanni. It’s more like Dom Perignon. But if you’re looking for a good time, you’re headed for the right place.
The present production by Syracuse Opera is, in essence, a three-act bottle of champagne that when popped open spurts a bubbly potpourri of tunes, dances — and continuous laughter. The fun is augmented by an endless parade of irresistible dance music such as waltzes and polkas, and tunes you’ll be humming long after leaving the theater. Add to the mix some handsome sets, delightful singing, clever comedic acting and solid support from the orchestra pit, and you’ve a taste of Vienna right here in Syracuse.
The farcical plot of Die Fledermaus, originally set in early 19th-century Vienna, is the stuff comic opera is made of: mistaken identities, assumed identities, elaborate practical jokes, lampooning of social status and an intertwining web of sexual pursuit. Dr. Falke is bent on exacting revenge for a practical joke Eisenstein had played on him earlier. The good doctor concocts an elaborate payback that will unwind over the course of the operetta’s three acts. But the real story here is hardly a story at all: It’s an excuse to sing, dance, drink, indulge your pleasures and enjoy the good life. To paraphrase the Las Vegas mantra, “What happens in Vienna, stays in Vienna.”
Of course, musical comedy demands more than just good tunes and clever one-liners to sustain some three hours of listener attention. It requires a strong cast of singing actors with sufficient chemistry to connect the musical and comedic elements convincingly. Stage Director Valerie Rachelle managed a fine cast of young musicians who not only blended well, but also made it clear that they were having fun doing it.
Neal Ferreira crafted a magnificent presence as Alfred, the self-absorbed (though completely loveable) suitor to Rosalinde. Using the sweet sounds of his magnificent leggero tenor (and thick Italian accent) as bait, Alfred tries to re-kindle the romance with former lover Rosalinde in the first-act toast, Drink, my lovely. Though his character’s amorous intentions are largely thwarted in the story, Ferreira provides laughs galore with his bravura-filled stage presence, and impresses the listener with a sinuous vocal presence that includes a stunning (and sustained) high C. Ferreira is also deserving of kudos as the only singer to stay consistently with the orchestra, beat-for-beat (no easy task considering the wild polkas and rapid stage action in this work).
The two female leads, Jennifer Goode Cooper as Rosalinde and Katrina Thurman as Adele, were in fine vocal form throughout the evening.
Thurman’s light lyric soprano, which borders on soubrette, is perfectly suited to the role of the maid, Adele. She has an immediately attractive bright and warm vocal timbre that, while not especially large, would make a perfect fit as Musetta in La Bohème (a role she’s sung before) and Zerlina (Don Giovanni). During Thurman’s Broadway-like number If I were a Country Girl, where her character is asked to prove she has sufficient talent to be an actress, it became abundantly clear that this is a singer equally at-home with musical theater and opera.
Thurman’s signature second-act number, the Laughing Song, was for my tastes the standout number of the production. This irresistible waltz can paste a smile on every face, inviting the listener to sway side to side in-time with each OOM-pah-pah. And her delivery was picture perfect. Thurman is also a fine comedic actor who several times nearly stole the show with her onstage antics and gesticulations. Her whining and maudlin tears over her “sick aunt” were a constant source of belly laughs throughout the first act.
Cooper’s attractive lyric soprano, though markedly heavier in timbre than that of Thurman, served the singer well in her two big numbers and ensemble duos and trios. The added darkness of her voice occasionally created difficulties for the listener with respect to diction, both during the singing and spoken dialogue. Fortunately, the projected supertitles (a prudent addition even to those works performed entirely in English) helped fill in the gaps.
Cooper’s most impressive work came in the second act, where her character (disguised as a Hungarian Countess) sings the syrupy Csárdás, a lugubrious song about leaving her beloved homeland that Cooper delivered in suitably maudlin manner. This lengthy number, which glittered as brightly as the endless bling adorning her magnificent gown, gave Cooper the opportunity to display her considerable command of vocal range — from the deep mezzo register to the final high note (I’m guessing a D). I expect that Cooper’s tendency to drag slightly behind conductor Douglas Kinney Frost’s beat in the quicker numbers will work itself out by Sunday’s repeat performance.
The third female role — actually a male role sung by a mezzo soprano (or pants role, as it’s often called) — is the filthy rich (though eternally bored) Russian aristocrat, Prince Orlofsky, played here in masterful fashion by Cindy Sadler.
Sadler’s husky speaking voice, which could easily pass off as that of a man, was couched in a thick and convincing Russian accent strong enough to land the actor a spot in the cast of the James Bond thriller, From Russia With Love. Sadler’s character was commanding and authoritative, drawing the eyes of all guests at the opulent ball in the tuneful drinking song Chacun à son goût, where the prince invites his guests to indulge their every pleasure.
Sadler’s best singing of the evening came with the magnificent Champagne Chorus, a toast she delivered with great energy and drive. With the exception of an occasional tendency to allow her vibrato to cloud an otherwise handsome singing voice, Sadler delivered a most enjoyable musical and comedic effort.
As Rosalinde’s philandering husband, Eisenstein, baritone Michael Mayes sang with a commanding, booming baritone that would have been perfectly suited to a large opera house such as the Met. Or perhaps a Wagnerian music drama. In the smaller confines of the Crouse Hinds Theater, however, his voice was a bit over-the top.
To be sure, Mayes’s thickly textured baritone appeared handsome and well focused, and when he sang by himself I marveled at his confidence and vocal presence. But the ensemble numbers were another story, as the thickness of his voice overpowered the other singers in virtually every duo and trio throughout the show. As a comedic actor, Mayes was beyond reproach, and his presence onstage invariably commanded the attention of the audience.
Peter Kendall Clark forged a debonair Dr. Falke, and his handsome presence and onstage demeanor was strong enough to keep stride with the charismatic Mayes. Clark’s easygoing lyric baritone, which at times appeared sufficiently light to label him a tenor, was an absolute pleasure to the ear, such as when he offered a toast to the party revelers (Brothers and sisters) in Act Two. Of all the actors, Clark’s diction was clearly the most succinct, whether singing or speaking.
As Frank, Andrew Gray appeared far too young to convince the audience of his position as the prison warden. Gray nevertheless sang well in the ensemble numbers, and gave a welcome boost to the rapidly paced trio with Cooper and Ferreira at the close of Act One.
Michael Connor, a long-time performer of comic roles at Syracuse Opera, typically steals the moment whenever he comes onstage. And he does so again as Eisenstein’s hapless lawyer, Blind. Connor is a funny man, and I’ve enjoyed his roles over the years, such as the “mad scientist” Spalanzani in the company’s production several years ago of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. (It’s gotten to the point where I begin laughing even before Connor delivers his lines.)
The sets and costumes for the production, which Syracuse Opera is renting from other companies, work splendidly. Especially pleasing is the elaborate setting for the ball at Prince Orlofsky’s palace in Act Two, elegantly anchored by an immense chandelier hanging center stage that I was worried might fall. (Remember Phantom of the Opera?) The colorful costumes worn by the female party revelers were pure eye candy.
Rachelle’s staging of the party scenes were as effervescent as Strauss’s polkas. She proved she’s a good traffic cop, too — managing to keep the dancing couples from running into one-another during the crowded waltz scenes.
The musicians from Symphoria responded well to Kinney Frost’s direction at the podium, and demonstrated sufficient stamina to keep up with the relentless tempos demanded by the composer throughout the work’s seemingly endless dances. The trumpets, in particular, proved immune to the grueling pace of the faster numbers, and there was some good work on the part of the winds (especially piccolo) in the finger-busting coda to the Overture.
The Syracuse Opera Chorus got its chance to shine throughout the second act, and did so handsomely in the Champagne Chorus. I especially enjoyed the ensemble’s gentle delivery of the slow waltz of the end of that act, caressing the softer dynamic levels to whisper-quiet.
Attendance was rather disappointing at Friday’s opening performance — a victim, perhaps, of the unusual level of competing activity that included The Book of Mormon at the Landmark Theater and the opening of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at Syracuse Stage. And then there was the presence of former President Bill Clinton, in town that evening to rally supporters of Congressman Dan Maffei.
When I left the theater I tried desperately to recall Adele’s Laughing Song throughout the ride home. No such luck. My musical memory had been hijacked by that irresistible foot-tapper, the Champagne Chorus.
It’s still there now…
What: Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss Jr.
Who: Syracuse Opera
Language: sung in English with projected titles
Where: Crouse Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, 2014
Length: About 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $25 to $206, call (315) 476-7372 or Syracuseopera.com