Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 7
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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Opera New Jersey Brings a Spirited “Die Fledermaus” Production to McCarter

Nancy Plum

Composer Johann Strauss was already known as the “Waltz King” when he wrote Die Fledermaus, incorporating many of his typical waltz tunes into what has become his most popular operetta. Opera New Jersey selected this operetta, whose dialog leaves a great deal of room for updating and improvisation, for its winter production, and planned several performances of the work throughout the state, the first of which was on Friday night at McCarter Theatre. Presented in English with English surtitles (in a new adaptation by Quade Winter and with additional dialog by Ira Siff), Friday night’s performance revealed a production with a great deal of polish and needing just a tweak here and there before its next showing in Morristown.

Success in operettas (like that of musicals) lies in the marriage between the dialog and the music. The first act of Die Fledermaus took off like the proverbial bat, with an overture well played by the onstage orchestra, conducted by Mark Flint. Even with the orchestra placed at the back of the stage, the sound was well contained and uniform, with clean wind solos. Stage director Ira Siff used the very long overture as an opportunity to set up the premise of the story — a practical joke played by Eisenstein on Dr. Falke, which by the end of the operetta Falke had repaid. Clever curtain drops at the end of the overture set the scene for a well placed first act.

The first character to effectively claim the stage was soprano Rachele Gilmore, singing the role of Adele, housemaid and the lucky character to sing the show-stopper “Laughing Song” in Act II. Despite its “operetta” format, the music in Die Fledermaus is difficult, with fast coloratura and dramatic effect. Ms. Gilmore sang with effervescence and high energy, with solid vocal color. Her voice was almost interchangeable with that of soprano Lisa Vroman, singing the role of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde. Ms. Vroman sang the equally vocally demanding Rosalinde with enough satirical drama to move the story along. Tenor Allan Glassman, singing the role of Eisenstein, was just as strong, turning in one of the best performances he has sung with Opera New Jersey.

Joined by baritone Keith Phares, singing the role of Dr. Falke, the ensemble cast continually maintained tight and compact singing in the “patter” which marked this operetta and which Gilbert and Sullivan later took to new heights. Mr. Phares’s lanky frame especially worked in his favor to add physicality to his comedic presentation.

Where the quality of dialog and music began to diverge was at the end of the second act and the beginning of the third. The Czardas dance of the Hungarian “Countess” (Rosalinde in disguise) was performed at an appropriately sprightly pace, but the subsequent “sentimental waltz” bogged down in tempo and brought the act to an overly subdued conclusion. The third act opened with a monologue by the jailor Frosch (Anthony Laciura doubling in this role and one other) punctuated by the offstage singing of Alfred (sung by Tonio DiPaolo). Although the monologue had its funny moments, it was also overly drawn out more to the apparent amusement of the actors than the audience. This production of Die Fledermaus was long — almost 3½ hours — and bogging down the opera when there was extended dialog with humor that was at times repetitive made one long at times to get back to the music.

When the production did get back to the music, things were concise and vocally appealing. Most impressive in the second and third acts was mezzo-soprano Leah Summers, singing the “pants” role of Prince Orlofsky, a role which dramatically borrows from the late Classical tradition of “pants” roles but vocally has moved well into the 19th century requirements of solid lower range contralto singing.

Although Opera New Jersey co-founder Scott Altman introduced the production as a “concert stage” version, the operetta was as well-staged as it could have been by Mr. Siff within the confines of the McCarter Matthews Theater stage area. The stage was a bit crowded at times (there may have been a few too many dancers and singers in the crowd scenes, especially with the orchestra behind them) but effectively simple sets (with some very elegant period furniture) made the necessary points from scene to scene. Conductor Flint led a solid ensemble of players through the score with good communication between singers and orchestra, regardless of where anyone was on the stage.

Opera New Jersey is planning to tour Die Fledermaus to Morristown and New Brunswick later this month. This production will no doubt be well received as the cast polishes their roles and has the potential to build the opera company’s audience base and reputation throughout the state.

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