13 September 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johann Strauss II — DIE FLEDERMAUS (S. Hellman Spatafora, K. Pfortmiller, M. Liu, K. Richardson, L. Chavez, O. Poveda-Zavala, P. Suliandziga, B. Fields, K. Ely; Opera in Williamsburg, 9 September 2023)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde, tenor PAVEL SULAINDZIGA as Doktor Blind, and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825 – 1899): Die FledermausSusan Hellman Spatafora (Rosalinde), Kyle Pfortmiller (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Minghao Liu (Alfred), Kyaunnee Richardson (Adele), Lisa Chavez (Prinz Orlofsky), Oliver Poveda-Zavala (Doktor Falke), Pavel Suliandziga (Doktor Blind), Branch Fields (Frank), Kinneret Ely (Ida), John Cauthen (Frosch); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Adam Cioffari, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; DJ Knopick-Barrett, lighting designer; Robert Kyle, makeup and hair stylist; Opera in Williamsburg, Crosswalk Auditorium at Norge, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Saturday, 9 September 2023]

Opera is rarely a realm of absolutes. Asking opera lovers to name the quintessential Italian opera is to risk instigating battles amongst the proponents of bel canto, the ardent admirers of Verdi, and the unapologetic Puccini fanciers. Händel was a Saxon who wrote many of his operas for London, but they use Italian libretti, as do most of Mozart’s operas: are they disqualified from contention? If the subject of queries is the iconic Viennese operetta, however, not even the most contrary music lovers would be likely to object to the selection of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Since its first performance in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on 5 April 1874, Strauss’s setting of librettists Karl Haffner’s and Richard Genée’s adaptation of Roderich Benedix’s little-remembered 1851 farce Das Gefängnis has been a beloved ambassador for its genre, enchanting audiences in parts of the world to which Viennese operetta is an infrequent visitor.

Like the waltzes for which Johann Strauss Vater and his sons are celebrated, the effervescence of which is often tempered by an undercurrent of melancholy, the music and plot of Die Fledermaus are not all Sachertorte and Trockenbeerenauslese. Though many productions focus primarily or solely on the jocular consequences of deception, disguises, and marital infidelity, vestiges of insecurity, self-delusion, and vulnerability dance to Strauss’s sparkling waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles. Presented in the lovely space and vibrant acoustic of Crosswalk Auditorium at Norge whilst the Kimball Theatre, the company’s home at Merchants Square, undergoes renovations, Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of Die Fledermaus fused fast-paced comedy with emotional sincerity, every action accomplished with theatrical flair and musical integrity.

The irrepressibly wily Leporello in Opera in Williamsburg’s May 2023 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, bass-baritone Adam Cioffari returned to the Historic Triangle to direct Die Fledermaus, proving to be as clever in devising stage antics as in executing them. Supported by the company’s founder, Artistic Director, and producer Naama Zahavi-Ely, Cioffari earned the audience’s laughter with stage action that manifested comprehensive knowledge of the score and consummate comedic timing. Unlike productions filled with staging business that competes with the music, this Fledermaus was propelled by direction guided by the rhythms, textures, and moods of the score.

Costume designer Eric Lamp unfailingly transforms limited resources into memorably imaginative fashions in Opera in Williamsburg productions, but he achieved particular marvels in this Fledermaus with lavish attire worthy of Vienna’s most refined stages. With the added boons of expert makeup and hair stylings by Robert Kyle and stage manager DJ Knopick-Barrett’s well-managed lighting designs, the production achieved Opera in Williamsburg’s goal of showcasing world-class vocal talent in tasteful surroundings, Cioffari’s direction engendering scenarios notable both for their uncompromising fidelity to score and libretto—and to Michael Patrick Albano’s sharp-witted English translations of the dialogue—and for avoidance of the sort of nonsensical mayhem that afflicts some Fledermäuse.

As integral as the efforts of Cioffari and the production team to the success of this Fledermaus, the energy and ebullience with which the orchestral musicians assembled under the baton of Music Director Jorge Parodi animated Strauss’s music thrilled from the first strains of the celebrated Ouvertüre to the operetta’s final D-major chord. Numbering fifteen for this production, including assistant conductor and pianist Evgenia Trukša, whose playing of tambourine and triangle rousingly reinforced the rhythmic pulse of Parodi’s conducting, the instrumentalists’ performance of Jonathan Lyness’s reduction of Strauss’s orchestrations scintillated. Typically, Parodi paced each number, not least the mercurial Frischka of Rosalinde’s Csárdás, with a tempo that respected the composer and the principals, integrating inalienable dramatic sensibility with practiced coordination with the cast. Parodi’s work in Williamsburg consistently demonstrates remarkable stylistic versatility and an incredible affinity for nurturing ensembles that illuminate details of scores that too often remain in the shadows. His conducting of Die Fledermaus added to these qualities noteworthy accumen for finding the genuine emotions among the guffaws of Viennese operetta.

Portraying the bungling jailer Frosch—the figurative amphibious counterpart to the work’s eponymous bat, dwelling on land but thoroughly comfortable in the aqueous environment of drink—with raucous humor, John Cauthen delivered his lines in Act Three in a deadpan drawl that imparted the official’s ennui and exasperation at Alfred’s indefatigable singing. His droll articulations of Frosch’s lost-in-translation linguistic mishaps—Chevrolet for Chevalier, avocado for avvocato, et cetera—were all the funnier for being uttered without excessive histrionics. Large opera companies sometimes cast famous thespians as Frosch, but Cauthen inhabited the part with the intuitive grasp of Frosch’s function in the plot that eludes some interpreters.

IN REVIEW: bass OLIVER POVEDA-ZAVALA as Doktor Falke (left) and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Die Fledermaus nimmt Flügel: bass Oliver Poveda-Zavala as Doktor Falke (left) and baritone Kyle Pfortmiller as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Identified by her sister Adele at Orlofsky’s ball as a member of the ‘corpse de ballet, the spirited Ida was portrayed with terpsichorean grace and vocal elegance by soprano Kinneret Ely. Astonished by Adele’s whirlwind entrance at Orlofsky’s villa in Act Two, this Ida’s critiques of her sister’s gown—borrowed from Rosalinde’s wardrobe—and uncouth behavior were piquant but good-natured. Both at the party and in the scene with Adele and Frank in Act Three, Ely’s voice shimmered as radiantly as her costume. In dialogue, too, Ely was a vivacious presence, her acting skills combining with her vocal prowess to give Ida a wonderfully cosmopolitan personality.

As the none-too-correct corrections officer Frank, bass Branch Fields donned the warden’s uniform with unmistakable delight. Arriving chez von Eisenstein to escort the master of the house to prison in Act One, Fields’s deportment evinced Frank’s inflated pride in his position, but the offer of fermented refreshment quickly diluted his professional demeanor. ‘Drum fort, drum fort nur schnell’ voiced captivatingly, Frank’s reaction to the assumed husband’s—it was of course the heroine’s determined swain Alfred rather than Eisenstein—heartfelt farewell to his doting wife was amusingly saccharine. Disguised at Orlofsky’s ball in Act Two as Chevalier Chagrin, as proficient a Frenchman as his Frank was a prison warden, Fields personified awkward charm, spouting faux mots en français with aplomb and singing strikingly. Both enraptured and embarrassed when Adele and Ida turned up at the prison after the ball, Fields’s Frank voiced ‘Die Majestät wird anerkannt rings im Land’ in the Act Three melodram boisterously. The contrast between Fields’s endearingly gauche Frank and his grave, portentous Commendatore in Opera in Williamsburg’s Don Giovanni could nor have been greater—or more gratifyingly effective.

Whether portraying romantic leads as in L’elisir d’amore, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni or enlivening supporting parts like Beppe in Pagliacci and Parpignol in La bohème, tenor Pavel Suliandziga brightens Opera in Williamsburg performances with unflappable musicality and affecting sincerity. His Doktor Blind in Die Fledermaus was a study in the art of acting with the voice. The core of the part is the terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein in Act One, in which the latter’s prison sentence is attributed to Blind’s legal incompetence. Suliandziga dispatched the Rossinian patter deftly, every syllable clear and every note given its due. His clothing preferred to his counsel in Act Three, this Blind was all too happy to relinquish his duties (and his robe and wig) and allow his clients to settle their own affairs. Suliandziga’s artistry lent Blind’s participation in Fledermaus’s plot uncommon significance, his time on stage beguiling the audience.

The impetus for the events that transpire in Die Fledermaus is the notary Doktor Falke’s quest for revenge on his friend Eisenstein for a prank that left Herr Notar in a public space, hungover and in a bat costume. The sheer pleasure that bass Oliver Zavala-Poveda’s Falke derived from his own stratagems resounded in his singing, the words artfully inflected. In the scene with Eisenstein in Act One, Falke enticed his prison-bound pal with a cunning account of ‘Komm mit mir zum Souper,’ the invitation to Orlofsky’s specially-arranged ball communicated with ebullient persuasiveness. Sharing the details of his plan with Orlofsky in Act Two, Poveda-Zavala imbued Falke’s lines with conspiratorial mirth. The high tessitura of Falke’s launching of the ‘Brüderlein und Schwesteelein’ ensemble in the Act Two finale challenged the bass vocally, but the dramatic potency of his singing was uninhibited. In Act Three, Falke himself seemed surprised by the total success of his scheme, Poveda-Zavala voicing his lines with unfettered jubilation. The gaiety of his depiction of the notary’s satisfaction upon claiming vengeance vindicated him of any suspicion of ill intent, but any Eisenstein would be wise to think twice before playing tricks on Poveda-Zavala’s Falke.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) sopranos SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde and KYAUNNEE RICHARDSON as Adele and baritone KYLE PFORTMILLER as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Das häusliche Glück: (from left to right) sopranos Susan Hellman Spatafora as Rosalinde and Kyaunnee Richardson as Adele and baritone Kyle Pfortmiller as Gabriel von Eisenstein in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Last seen on the Opera in Williamsburg stage as the iron-willed Dorabella in Così fan tutte, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez found in Strauss’s Prinz Orlofsky another splendidly congenial rôle, the music wholly in the voice and the comedy suiting her innate theatricality. Even in a powerhouse cast, Chavez dominated Act Two, her exaggerated Russian accent elating the audience before she sang a note. [Especially ingenious in Chavez’s wordplay was a fleeting reference to Sesame Street’s Count von Count (‘One—ah, ah, ah’)]. The famous couplets ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ were sung dashingly, the credo ‘Chacun à son goût!’ enunciated with devil-may-care suavity. No less entrancing was her singing of Orlofsky’s paean to champagne, in which the voice corruscated intoxicatingly. A handful of notes at the top of the range were effortful, but intonation was inviolably solid. Resolving the joke of Orlofsky’s years-long abstinence from laughing with a single gutteral ‘ha’ in Act Three, Chavez projected aristocratic bemusement, accentuating the parallel of the prince’s well-timed arrival at the prison with the fortuitous appearance of Richard Strauss’s Marschallin at the inn in Act Three of Der Rosenkavalier. In speech and song, Chavez made Orlofsky a character rather than a caricature.

The wiry, soubrettish voices to which the rôle of Rosalinde’s feisty chambermaid Adele is too often entrusted can inspire dread of the character’s numbers, but soprano Kyaunnee Richardson made Adele’s scenes mesmerizing. Blissfully untroubled by her very first note being a top B, Richardson voiced ‘Was schreibt meine Schwester Ida?’ entrancingly, and each emotionally-charged phrase of Adele’s part in the terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein was shaped with vocal finesse and shrewdness. In this performance, Adele’s arrival at the ball in Act Two, clad in Rosalinde’s dress, was delectably reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s legendary curtain dress scene in her ‘Went with the Wind!’ sketch, and Richardson’s voicing of the oft-excerpted couplets ‘Mein Herr Marquis, ein Mann wie Sie,’ her trills and top D lustrous, recalled the singing of Burnett’s friend Beverly Sills. As Adele exhibited her fledgling talent for the stage, seeking sponsorship for a career in the theater, the couplets in Act Three, ‘Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande,’ were intoned with musical and comedic virtuosity. In fantastic voice throughout the performance, Richardson reserved her best effort for the final scene, bringing down the curtain with a phenomenal interpolated top D, and her uncontainable smile brought sunlight to the auditorium on a stormy afternoon.

The opera singer and vocal pedagogue who won Rosalinde’s heart before she was Frau von Eisenstein is hardly credible if his portrayer does not possess an attractive, pliant voice. Treating the audience not only to a bewitchingly-sung traversal of Strauss’s music but also to tantalizing fragments of arias by composers including Rossini, Verdi, Gounod, and Puccini, Opera in Williamsburg’s Alfred, tenor Minghao Liu, wooed Rosalinde with the sophistication of Tito Schipa and the upper register of Alfredo Kraus. Serenading his former paramour from offstage at the start of Act One, he phrased ‘Täubchen, das entflattert ist’ lovingly, and both ‘Ach, ich darf nicht hin zu dir’ and ‘Trinke, Liebchen, trinke schnell’ were rousingly sung, Alfred joining Rosalinde on the top C that ended the act.

So ardent was Liu’s voicing of ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta Das Land des Lächelns at the beginning of Act Three that the anachronism of its inclusion was easily forgiven. In the frenetic terzett with Rosalinde and Eisenstein, Alfred’s ‘Um Rat ihn zu fragen’ was sung with vigor, Liu’s Italianate timbre spotlighting the music’s kinship with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Such a winsome Alfred made Rosalinde’s reconciliation with Eisenstein slightly regrettable, but there was little doubt that the tenor’s ‘high D that [Rosalinde would] know anywhere’ had not been heard for the last time beneath Rosalinde’s window.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUSAN HELLMAN SPATAFORA as Rosalinde in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2023 production of Johann Strauß II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]Die ungarische Gräfin beim Maskenball: soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora as Rosalinde in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2023 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Opera in Williamsburg]

With a voice and keen dramatic instincts worthy of the famed stages upon which he has appeared, baritone Kyle Pfortmiller rightly established the target of Falke’s retaliatory subterfuge, the rakish but amiable Gabriel von Eisenstein, as the plot’s focal point. The errant spouse informing Rosalinde of the extension of his prison sentence from five to eight days, ‘Nein, mit solchen Advokaten’ in the Act One terzett was sung with rollicking bluster, frustration with Blind’s legal floundering surging from the vocal line. A very different, altogether giddy Eisenstein emerged in the duo with Falke, Pfortmiller’s voicing of ‘Das seh ich ein’ conveying a reawakened sense of adventure. The master proved to be no more savvy a liar than his servant in the terzett with Rosalinde and Adele, the inexplicable changes in Eisenstein’s mood and intended mode of dress—both depicted by Pfortmiller with dapper merriment—intimating that some clandestine escapade was afoot.

Disguised at Orlofsky’s ball in Act Two as Marquis de Renard, Pfortmiller’s Eisenstein was anything but vulpine in his mastery of his adopted persona. He was further befuddled by first Adele’s and then Rosalinde’s entrances, immediately recognizing the former and enamored of the latter. In the fareful encounter in which Eisenstein was deprived of his prized watch by the glamorous ‘Gräfin Hunyady,’ the baritone’s fervent singing of ‘Dieser Anstand, so manierlich’ hilariously imparted romantic infatuation. His Cinderella-like romp at Orlofsky’s residence ended by the reality of his looming prison sentence, this Eisenstein took his leave with jocular insouciance.

Reporting to prison in Act Three, the demoted marquis was surprised to discover the former chevalier, but this was supplanted by the shock of learning that his cell was already occupied by a gentleman retrieved from the arms of Rosalinde. The wounded husband demanding Blind’s clothes, Eisenstein angrily confronted Rosalinde and Alfred, Pfortmiller declaiming ‘Pack ich ihn beim Kragen’ with fury and, overcome by indignation, intermittently forgetting to impersonate Blind’s voice. His ego deflated by Rosalinde producing the coveted watch, acceptance of his defeat was Eisenstein’s only viable course, and Pfortmiller’s singing in the final scene gleamed with hearty confidence. The range of Eisenstein’s music is daunting, but moments of strain in Pfortmiller’s performance were offset by a bevy of spectacular top notes, crowning a characterization of rare depth.

Soprano Susan Hellman Sparafora’s Donna Anna in Opera in Williamsburg’s May production of Don Giovanni was musically and dramatically revelatory, divulging seldom-explored subtleties of the character and introducing a superb operatic talent to the Tidewater audience. The breadth of that talent shone anew in Spatafora’s portrayal of Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, her singing of ‘Nein, du darfst heut nicht zu ihr’ in the operetta’s first scene proclaiming her as a peer of the most memorable past exponents of the part and disclosing susceptibility to the seductiveness of a good top D. Joining Eisenstein and Doktor Blind in their terzett, she sang ‘Beruh’ge endlich diese Wut’ commandingly. Vexation simmered in her voicing of ‘So muss allein ich bleiben’ in the scene with Eisenstein and Adele, climaxing on a forceful top C. Found by Frank in the company not of Eisenstein but of Alfred, this Rosalinde was a paragon of improvisation, uttering ‘Mein Herr, was dächten Sie von mir’ with unanswerable conviction and ending the act with a mighty top C.

Uncertain of the intention and implications of Falke’s invitation to Orlofsky’s soirée, Rosalinde donned the prescribed mask in Act Two with hesitation. The authenticity of the countess’s Hungarian identity questioned, Spatafora hysterically channeled Zsa Zsa Gabor, dazzling her fellow partygoers. Duetting with Eisenstein, her ‘Statt zu schmachten im Arreste’ was punctuated by trills that expressed Rosalinde’s ire. The well-known Csárdás, ‘Klänge der Heimat, ihr weckt mir das Sehnen,’ was the showpiece that it was meant to be, the soprano’s voice utterly secure even in the galloping Frischka and its ascent to top D.

In the final pages of Act Two and thr entirety of Act Three, Spatafora sang with abandon, pretense giving way to consternation in the terzett with Eisenstein and Alfred. The urgency of her ‘Ich stehe voll Zagen’ was galvanizing, Rosalinde’s predicament amusing but also touchingly human. Forgiving Eisenstein was here an act neither of necessity nor of magnanimity: the singer’s voice softened to a beautiful shimmer, this Rosalinde discernibly loved her husband. Portraying the rôle with emotional honesty as the foundation of the comedy, Spatafora was the ideal Rosalinde for Opera in Williamsburg’s Fledermaus, a triumph of artistry in a work too frequently debased by artifice.