Amanda Tipton Photography

Fledermaus provides jubilant escapism in Central City

By Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D., Freelance Classical Music Writer

It has been three years since a full audience gathered in the intimate Central City jewel box theater to watch a full-length operatic production.  While the outdoor Hudson Gardens productions in 2021 were excellent, they did require abridgement, and the soul of Central City Opera, which marks its 90th year in 2022, has always been its remarkable main venue.

A more jubilant return to that venue–and a more effective means of escape from the the turbulent times in which we live–than the production of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr., whose second performance and first matinee took place Wednesday, July 13, is hard to imagine.

Before discussing the effervescent cast and the individual performances, the aesthetic choices of director Joachim Schamberger are worth examining.  First, the question of language for an English-speaking audience has long been a sticking point with Strauss’s 1874 Viennese operetta.

It is undeniably awkward for an English-speaking cast to present the extensive spoken dialogue in the original German.  However, translating the sung portions into English is particularly problematic in this score.  Not only is it difficult to retain the effective declamation and rhyme, but there are also nuances that are completely impossible to reproduce in English, such as the explicit references to the informal second person “Du” in the beautiful “brotherhood” waltz near the end of Act II.  It is more convincing for a non-native to sing German than to speak it.

A “mixture” is now the standard, and Schamberger’s own English adaptation of the dialogue is wonderful, allowing for jokes with contemporary references while fully retaining the spirit of the original.  The choice to retain the German “Fledermaus” for the character of Dr. Falke instead of constantly translating it to “Bat” was an example of Schamberger’s deft approach–everyone knows what the title means and the central role of the bat costume, and “Dr. Bat” eliminates the felicitous alliteration between “Dr. Falke” and his nickname “Dr. Fledermaus.”

It was also a brilliant idea to stage a pantomime of the backstory involving that bat costume during the overture.  It was done in a humorous way that did not diminish the impact of that famous and masterful piece of music.  Falke’s staging of his elaborate revenge on Gabriel von Eisenstein–who pranked his friend by leaving him drunk and exposed in the bat suit in that backstory–is also more fleshed out than usual.

Some choices are more questionable.  The part of Prince Orlofsky was written for a mezzo-soprano as a “trouser role,” but the original libretto never suggests that the prince is not a real person or played as an in-story “role” by a woman in disguise, as is explicitly indicated here.  That sounds good in theory, but the execution doesn’t work so well, and there are already enough characters in disguise.  Most of the ad-libbed jokes with current cultural and political references land perfectly, but the ones referencing Russia and Putin are more uncomfortable than funny.

Overall, Schamberger has produced an innovative but respectful adaptation played against three beautiful sets in three acts that are extremely different in character, the strained domesticity of the Eisenstein home, the splendor of Orlofsky’s party, and the absurdity of the closing jail scene.

The cast is stellar, beginning with the four principals.  Unusually, it is Dr. Falke–who is the title character after all and the driver of the plot–who takes the final bow rather than the Eisenstein couple, and baritone Troy Cook, who has delivered magisterial CCO performances in previous seasons, justifies the choice.  Cook sells Falke’s revenge with aplomb, joyously dons the bat costume at the end, and sings with radiance, particularly in the “brotherhood” waltz.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim, who stole audience hearts last season as the tragic Gilda in Rigoletto, is utterly luminous as the chambermaid Adele.  Jordheim’s stage presence and crystal-clear vocal delivery (especially in the two rightly famous arias) convince the audience that while Adele certainly requires professional nurturing, she is destined for more than a maid’s fate.

The role of Eisenstein is difficult.  Often sung by a baritone, its range sits uncomfortably high for that voice type.  William Ferguson, a tenor, takes it here, and the result is magical.  Ferguson belts the higher notes with confidence, and imbues the character with the required ambivalence, making him both sympathetic and duplicitous, as is the story’s intent.

Soprano Hailey Clark as Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde delivers a forceful performance without making the character too melodramatic or quasi-tragic, as is often the case.  Rosalinde should have a grand but warm and relatable presence, both in her own persona and her disguise as a Hungarian countess, and Clark accomplishes that.  The huge Act II Czardas is the operetta’s most challenging aria.  Clark does not disappoint there or anywhere else.  All her scenes with Ferguson and Matthew Plenk are enchanting.

Of the supporting cast, tenor Plenk makes the most of Alfred the opera singer, Rosalinde’s onetime beau whose flirtatious presence both drives and nearly derails Falke’s revenge plot.  The diegetic ad-libs from Italian opera flow well with Plenk’s German singing and English dialogue.  The character is completely absent from Act II, so must make a strong impact in the outer acts.

Two past Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Apprentice Artists now labeled as “developing artists” shine brightly in their roles.  Mezzo-soprano Kira Dills-DeSurra is delightful as Orlofsky, especially in her character aria and her verse of the “Ode to Champagne.”  Her performance would have worked just as well without the “disguise” conceit.  Bass-baritone Andrew Simpson as the jail warden Frank is vocally spectacular, matching Ferguson well in their scenes together in disguise as “Frenchmen,” and his pantomime at the beginning of the farcical Act III jail scene is a major highlight.  Curt Olds appears as Frosch the jailer, a comic speaking role that, when overplayed, often derails Act III from farce into slapstick.  Olds finds the right balance and is hilarious without hamming it up in a way that steals thunder from the leads.  Apprentice Artists Nathaniel Catasca and Francesca Mehrotra are featured in the smaller roles of Dr. Blind and Ida.  Chorus master Brandon Eldredge has prepared a superb ensemble that provides unobtrusive but vital support to the main cast in Act II.

Finally, a fitting tribute to conductor John Baril is in order.  The CCO music director marks 30 years with the company.  In those years, he has always led a highly professional and polished pit orchestra, shown extreme sensitivity to his singers, and served as the musical glue that binds every production he leads. 

It is to Baril’s credit that the overture made the impact it did even with the pantomime.  He engaged with the audience while leading the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss, Sr., father of the “waltz king” Fledermaus composer, in the set change between Act II and the shorter Act III.  As usual, his awesome orchestral players, guided by his assured hand, supported the singers, particularly in the often-difficult transitions between dialogue and singing.  Baril is a treasure, the heart of CCO, and his three decades are justly highlighted by the company in this season’s return to its venue and its roots, showcased in this joyous production of Die Fledermaus.