27 October 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johann Strauss II — DIE FLEDERMAUS (T. Beliy, C. Griffin, S. Toso, M. Friedrich, B. Lail, S. Caplin, L. Sparks, M. Xie, G. Chambers, R. A. Garcia, R. Wells; UNCG Opera Theatre, 24 October 2019)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Adele, mezzo-soprano BAILEY LAIL as Prinz Orlovsky, soprano MUJUN XIE as Ida, and bass RAFAEL ALEJANDRO GARCIA as Ivan in UNCG Opera Theatre's production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamary Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825 – 1899): Die Fledermaus [sung in English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin] — Tamara Beliy (Rosalinde), Claire Griffin (Adele), Sean Toso (Alfred), Michael Friedrich (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Bailey Lail (Prinz Orlovsky), Sophie Caplin (Doktor Blind), Lorenze Sparks (Doktor Falke), Mujun Xie (Ida), Guy Chambers (Frank), Rafael Alejandro Garcia (Ivan), Robert Wells (Frosch); UNCG Opera Theatre Fledermaus Ensemble and Orchestra; David Holley, conductor, stage director, and producer [Pingyi Song, chorus master; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 24 October 2019]

Some clichés get it right. Music is indeed a universal language, and, in the treatment of music-receptive ailments, laughter is a highly-effective medicine. This is no less true in America in 2019 than it was in Europe in the 1870s, when the continent was already experiencing the conflicts between nationalism and imperialism that would eventually erupt into the First World War. Encompassing the native lands of diverse peoples in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire was the epicenter of ethnic clashes: it was Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, that precipitated the start of the Great War. It was into this volatile environment that Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus first spread its wings, only seven years after the adoption of the new constitution that hastened the end of the House of Habsburg’s power.

First performed on 5 April 1874, in Vienna’s famed Theater an der Wien, where not only several of Strauss’s operettas but also Beethoven’s Leonore—the earliest incarnation of Fidelio—and Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe received their premières, Die Fledermaus was immediately acclaimed by audiences as a masterpiece of the Viennese operetta genre. By the time that Die Fledermaus reached the stage, the forty-eight-year-old Strauss had been celebrated as a composer for three decades. Continuing his short-lived father’s espousal of the waltz, Strauss had by 1874 come to represent the musical life of Vienna, both in Austria-Hungary and throughout the world. All of Europe danced to his polkas and waltzes, but the success of Die Fledermaus contributed markedly to Strauss’s global fame. Within months of its première, Die Fledermaus had been heard in a host of European cities and had even crossed the Atlantic, receiving its first performance in the United States in New York City on 21 November 1874.

With an uproarious plot drawn from Das Gefängnis, an 1851 comedy by the little-remembered playwright Julius Roderich Benedix that also inspired a once-popular comédie en vaudeville by Jacques Offenbach’s frequent librettists Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, Die Fledermaus is a riotous romp through timeless themes, all of which ultimately involve affairs of the heart. With marital infidelity, mistaken identities, prison sentences, and grand theft timepiece transpiring in champagne-soaked three-quarter time, what could possibly go wrong? Showcasing the tremendous wealth of talent in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus confirmed that, in musical comedy, anything that can go wrong must go wrong—and when things go wrong as brilliantly as in this performance, how right it is!

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT WELLS as Frosch in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Falling down on the job: baritone Robert Wells as Frosch in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

With UNCG’s Director of Opera David Holley at the helm, this production of Die Fledermaus was destined to be a show of which cast, crew, university, and community could be proud. Both in his rôle at UNCG and as Artistic Director of Greensboro Opera, Holley brings steadfast integrity to his work, but his staging of Die Fledermaus revealed anew that a vital component of his artistry is not taking himself too seriously. Supervising an entrancingly simple staging in which the action took place in front of the closed curtain, Holley genuinely participated in the performance, not merely as a conductor on the podium but also as an actor with perfect comedic timing. The production’s small scale lent this Fledermaus an intimacy that the score possesses but many stagings lack. Big budgets can buy lavish sets, extravagant costumes, and aggressively-promoted singers, but these expenditures do not guarantee success. The enthusiasm that Holley instilled in this Fledermaus, epitomized by unwavering musicality and clever humor, cannot be bought.

Under Holley’s baton, the excellent orchestra—pianists Anja Arko (Ouvertüre and Act One) and Xiaoxiong Chen (Acts Two and Three), flautist Janet Phillips, oboist Thomas Turanchik, clarinetist Darkson Magrinelli, double bassist Rebecca Marland, and percussionist Erik Schmidt—interacted with the drama rather than merely accompanying it. Fledermaus is a richly-orchestrated score, but not even in the famous Ouvertüre did the playing of UNCG Opera Theatre’s small instrumental ensemble disappoint. In fact, their numbers were perfectly matched with the dimensions of the production, transporting the audience to a chic Viennese café. A few suspect pitches and missed entrances notwithstanding, the musicians’ work was an integral part of the evening’s fun. Similarly, the choristers, drilled by the aptly-named Pingyi Song, sang with gusto—and with English diction that could be understood! Holley’s leadership ensured that every musical detail of the performance was as clear as the chiming of Einsenstein’s troublesome watch.

IN REVIEW: baritone GUY CHAMBERS as Frank in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Warbling warden: baritone Guy Chambers as Frank in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

The rôle of Ivan, Prinz Orlovsky’s majordomo, is barely noticed in many productions, but he heightened the hilarity of Act Two in this Fledermaus in a wonderfully droll performance by bass Rafael Alejandro Garcia. Catering to the whims of the Prinz’s snobbish guests clearly inconvenienced this servant, a fact that Garcia communicated with rolled eyes and stony expressions of contempt and annoyance. It is a pity that a solo number was not invented for him, perhaps using music from another Strauss score and a purpose-written text: like Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, what stories he might tell! The master not to be outdone by a student, eminent baritone and UNCG faculty member Robert Wells’s much-lauded experience in the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy operas was apparent in his scene-stealing turn as the chronically-inebriated jailer Frosch. This bumbling keeper of the keys was unquestionably an ancestor of Barney Fife: thankfully, his boss did not trust him with a pistol and a bullet. With an offstage assist from Alfred, Wells’s Frosch pantomimed Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore better than some tenors sing it.

IN REVIEW: baritone GUY CHAMBERS as Frank (left) and tenor SEAN TOSO as Alfred (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Partners in wine: baritone Guy Chambers as Frank (left) and tenor Sean Toso as Alfred (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Looking stunning in a sapphire-hued gown, Beijing-born soprano Mujun Xie sparkled, musically and dramatically, as Adele’s worldly sister Ida. Though she occasionally seemed uncomfortable with the English dialogue, her comfort with the music was conspicuous. Likewise, soprano Sophie Caplin coped handily with an awkward assignment. There is an established tradition of casting a tenor rather than a mezzo-soprano—or, in recent years, a countertenor—as Orlovsky, but it is far rarer to encounter a female singer as Eisenstein’s blissfully inept solicitor, Doktor Blind. Caplin made the most of Blind’s patter in the Act One trio with Rosalinde and Eistenstein, and she displayed expert comic acting in the put-upon attorney’s appearance in Act Three.

In his guises as the prison warden and his party-going alter ego Chevalier Chagrin, Frank received from baritone Guy Chambers a vibrant, vividly-sung characterization. Launching the trio in the Act One finale, when Frank arrives to convey Eisenstein to prison but, unbeknownst to himself and the absent Eisenstein, finds Rosalinde in the company of her would-be paramour, Chambers sang attractively. Fantastic as the not-quite-French Chevalier Chagrin in Act Two, the baritone managed to avoid being upstaged in Act Three, first with a bit of boisterous stage business involving the predictably incendiary results of falling asleep with a lit cigar and a newspaper and then with a touching suggestion of humility when his real identity as the plebeian warden was revealed to Adele and Ida. Chambers’s vivacious personality and his lovely, evenly-produced voice made Frank’s every moment on stage a delight.

IN REVIEW: baritone LORENZE SPARKS as Doktor Falke (left) and mezzo-soprano BAILEY LAIL as Prinz Orlovsky (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]The prince and the prankster: baritone Lorenze Sparks as Doktor Falke (left) and mezzo-soprano Bailey Lail as Prinz Orlovsky (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

The aristocratic boost to her emergence as an actress that Adele sought from the fraudulent Chevalier was ultimately pledged with self-congratulatory magnanimity by the glamorously androgynous Prinz Orlovsky of mezzo-soprano Bailey Lail. Act Two is Orlovsky’s realm, and Lail crowned her portrayal of the petulant, avowedly hedonistic nobleman with a rousing account of the couplets in which the Priz articulates his anything-goes credo, ‘Chacun à son goût.’ Strauss’s writing for Orlovsky is often unwieldy, especially for modern singers with higher centers of vocal gravity than their Nineteenth-Century counterparts likely had, necessitating difficult changes of register. [The voice of the first Orlovsky, Irma Nittinger, was sufficiently unique that, when she fell ill, scheduled performances of Die Fledermaus at the Theater an der Wien in late Spring 1874 were postponed until she recovered in the autumn.] Lail navigated the rôle’s challenges with aplomb and verbal acuity, though the mandated Russian accent, here sounding as though the Prinz arrived in Vienna via Warsaw, distracted more than it entertained. To distort a conceit often repeated by this production’s Prinz, hearing one Orlovsky in no way equates with having heard all interpreters of the part, but Lail was an Orlovsky whose performance was a joy to hear.

Euphoniously opening Act One with a serenade of melting lyricism, tenor Sean Toso deployed an arsenal of hysterical Italian tenor mannerisms in his portrayal of Rosalinde’s ‘special friend’ Alfred, an obvious randy relation of the great Enrico Caruso. Eisenstein’s well-timed departure facilitating an impromptu assignation with his beloved, this Alfred eagerly began his pursuit of his amorous quarry. In the Act One finale, Toso voiced the Trinklied with the zeal of a man used to playing the lover on and off the stage. In addition to the sputtering ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ commandeered by Frosch, Toso’s Alfred enlivened his time in prison with a few bars from the Duca di Mantova’s ‘La donna è mobile,’ the Brindisi from La traviata, and Radamès’s ‘Celeste Aida,’ and seizing Rosalinde’s hand after her arrival at the jail offered an irresistible chance to sing the first phrase of Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina.’ Toso sang all of these excerpts appealingly, but it was in his singing in the trio with Rosalinde and Eisenstein, the latter posing as Blind in an attempt to elicit a confession of wrongdoing from his wife and her lover, that the tenor’s affinity for musical comedy was most evident. The fervor of his Alfred’s wooing of Rosalinde and his impressive sampling of music from other scores whetted the appetite for hearing Toso in Romantic—and romantic—rôles.

IN REVIEW: soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Adele in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]No time for tidying: soprano Claire Griffin as Adele in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Should anyone hear her cheerful banter and beguilingly ebullient music and think that the rôle of Rosalinde’s stagestruck maid Adele is an easy sing, considering the fact that the first note of the part is a top B should initiate a return to reality. Nevertheless, soprano Claire Griffin electrified UNCG Opera Theatre’s Fledermaus with an Adele so captivating that singing her demanding music seemed to be as natural as breathing. From her first entrance, reading the letter purportedly containing her sister’s exhortation to use the excuse of a sick aunt to procure an evening off in order to attend Orlovsky’s ball, this Adele had a solution for every problem. In the scene with Rosalinde and the subsequent trio with the chambermaid’s mistress and master, Griffin sang splendidly and animated the rôle with uninhibited antics that included exasperatedly perching herself on clarinetist Magrinelli’s knee whilst Rosalinde and Eisenstein exaggerated their sorrow at facing an eight-day separation. Adele’s couplets in the finale were dispatched with comedic flair worthy of Lucille Ball.

Orlovsky may be the most lascivious host in Vienna, but Griffin’s Adele was irrefutably the belle of the ball in Act Two. Initially the proverbial fish out of water, she quickly perceived that, whether their ranks and titles were real or fictitious, the people around her were inherently fake. Adele’s laughing song is one of the score’s best-loved numbers and on this evening fully earned that distinction. In Griffin’s performance, Adele’s couplets in Act Three were nothing short of a tour de force. Appropriating Holley’s baton, she literally became the director of her own show. Frank and Orlovsky were convinced of the viability of her theatrical abilities, and who could doubt the discernment of a warden and a prince? That Griffin accomplished such a dynamic characterization without even marginally sacrificing musical values exclaimed that she was born for a life upon the wicked stage—the operatic stage, that is.

IN REVIEW: tenor MICHAEL FRIEDRICH as Gabriel von Eisenstein (left) and baritone LORENZE SPARKS as Doktor Falke (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Boys will be boys: tenor Michael Friedrich as Gabriel von Eisenstein (left) and baritone Lorenze Sparks as Doktor Falke (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Settling a score with Eisenstein, who abandoned him in the wee hours after a masquerade ball and left him in a public place to be discovered in a bat costume, it is Doktor Falke who organizes the events that propel the plot of Die Fledermaus, but the voices to which the part is entrusted sometimes fail to embody Falke’s importance in the operetta. This is a shortcoming of which UNCG Opera Theatre’s production cannot be accused, Falke having been brilliantly sung and acted in Greensboro by Lorenze Sparks. Falke is a rôle in which one of the foremost masters of Viennese operetta, Austrian bass-baritone Erich Kunz, was greatly acclaimed [he also recorded both Frank and Frosch], and the fact that Sparks’s performance often brought the wit of Kunz’s Falke to mind is indicative of the caliber of the young singer’s efforts.

His range hugging the divide between baritone and tenor, Sparks exhibited vocal assurance throughout the compass of Falke’s music, making his Act One duet with Eisenstein as effective musically as it was comedically. Sparks’s Falke was literally and figuratively the life of the party in Act Two, conspiring with Prinz Orlovsky to bring off his plans in memorable fashion and initiating the ‘Brüderlein und Schwesterlein’ canon with burnished vocalism. Claiming victory in the final act, this Falke rejoiced without overwrought gloating. Vocally and histrionically, Sparks’s performance wielded the complexities of an Austrian Sachertorte: decadent, layered, and filled with a concoction of contrasting sweetness and tartness, it was unforgettably delectable.

IN REVIEW: soprano TAMARA BELIY as Rosalinde (left) and baritone MICHAEL FRIEDRICH as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Keeping watch: soprano Tamara Beliy as Rosalinde (left) and baritone Michael Friedrich as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Despite an extensive history of the music being sung honorably on stage and in recording studios by baritones, Strauss intended the rôle of Gabriel von Eisenstein, the butt of Doktor Falke’s retributory jest, for a tenor. In many instances, a tenor voice blends more pleasingly with his colleagues in ensembles, and a higher, brighter voice can give the errant husband a more youthful demeanor. Michael Friedrich’s performance in this Fledermaus was an example of a tenor Eisenstein who validated the composer’s choice of vocal range. Devilishly handsome, debonair, and as lithe as a Monty Python trouper, Friedrich’s impersonation of Eisenstein combined the slapstick shenanigans of the young Charlie Chaplin with the vocal elegance of Heddle Nash. Bemoaning the ineptitude of his counselor of record with the temper of a man sentenced to the gallows, he simultaneously sweet-talked Rosalinde and abused Doktor Blind in their Act One trio.

Prospects of champagne baths and frolicking ballerinas galvanized Friedrich’s singing in the duet with Falke, and he could not take his leave of his distracted wife and her meddling maid quickly enough. Like Chambers’s Chevalier Chagrin, Friedrich’s Marquis Renard was a ripping parody of a pretentious grand seigneur. Ensnared by his wife’s cunning, this Eisenstein reacted to the loss of his lady-baiting watch with comical tantrums and pouting. Reporting to serve his jail sentence only to find his cell occupied by a substitute Eisenstein, he was quick to recognize Alfred as a rival and to hypocritically denounce Rosalinde’s inconstancy. Mirroring Falke’s good-natured enjoyment of his revenge, Eisenstein accepted defeat and admitted his own culpability without bitterness. Never pushed beyond its natural lyricism, Friedrich’s voice was as seductive as his smile.

IN REVIEW: soprano TAMARA BELIY as Rosalinde in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Lady of the house: soprano Tamara Beliy as Rosalinde in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

An imaginatively capricious Meg Page in UNCG Opera Theatre’s ambitious April 2019 production of Verdi’s Falstaff [reviewed here], soprano Tamara Beliy sang Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with the same intelligence, forthrightness, and musical resourcefulness that characterized her portrayal of the merry wife of Windsor. In the scene with Adele in Act One, Beliy’s Rosalinde was the personification of domestic malaise, so lost in her own thoughts that Adele’s pleading for an evening’s holiday went unheard. The top Bs in the trio with Eisenstein and Doktor Blind rang out imposingly. Here and in the trio with Adele and Eisenstein, there was no confusion about whose will was dominant, chez von Eisenstein. Beautiful of visage, figure, and, most importantly, voice, Beliy gave Rosalinde an aura of cinematic enchantment.

Shocked to meet her husband at Orlovsky’s ball when he is supposed to be serving his jail sentence, this Rosalinde’s composure was only momentarily upset, but Beliy’s vocal control was never compromised. Toying with Eisenstein as she contrived to secure evidence of his duplicity by depriving him of his watch, Rosalinde’s trills and top Bs were sung with the supremacy of a woman who knows that she has the upper hand. Beliy voiced the familiar Csárdás, in which Holley proved to be the rare conductor who did not reduce his Rosalinde to gasping and panicking with an impossibly quick tempo for the Frischka, with panache and persuasively-feigned patriotism, and her top D at the piece’s conclusion was considerably more substantial than the shrieks typically heard. The explosions of indignation in the Act Three trio with Alfred and Eisenstein were handled without resorting to vocal harshness. In some singers’ performances, Rosalinde’s better qualities are hidden behind a minxish façade, but Beliy’s Rosalinde was as sympathetic in anger as in jubilation. In this young soprano’s graceful, expressive singing, Rosalinde’s benevolent spirit was always discernible.

That Die Fledermaus was one of the first scores to be taken into a studio in the early years of sound recording reflects the special affection that audiences have long had for the piece. That 1907 recording omitted the Ouvertüre and much of the dialogue and imposed cuts on the vocal numbers, but these and its technological limitations do not lessen its value as a glimpse into the performance history of a cherished work then only thirty-three years past its world première. With decidedly modern theatrical sensibilities that suited the staging’s ethos, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus wrote its own chapter in the operetta’s history, replacing decades’ worth of accumulated artifice with earnest exuberance. Amidst the disconcerting events of the Twenty-First Century, laughter of the operatic variety is truly one of the best medicines.


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The second performance of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus featured Lilla Keith as Rosalinde, Amber-Rose Romero as Adele, Angela Farlow-Rumball as Doktor Blind, Jenna Fife as Ida, Abigail Coy as Prinz Orlovsky, and Forrest Bunter as Frank. Other rôles were performed by the artists who appeared in the 24 October performance. Regrettably, I was unable to attend Saturday’s performance.