A HUGELY ENJOYABLE ‘DIE FLEDERMAUS’ FROM VANCOUVER OPERA
Johann Strauss, Jr., DIE FLEDERMAUS, Joyce El-Khoury (Rosalinde), Suzanne Rigden (Adele), Roger Honeywell (Eisenstein), Julie Boulianne (Orlovsky), Christopher Gaze (Frosh), Hugh Russell (Dr. Falke), David Pomeroy (Alfred), Andrew Greenwood (Frank), Vancouver Opera Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Darlington; directed by Nancy Hermiston, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, March 6, 2015.
Die Fledermaus is a flighty work, which is as it should be, given the title. Its characters are utterly superficial, and the operetta is cynical about love. It’s Le nozze di Figaro without depth. So why is it such a favourite with audiences? Because it’s fun, and its music is brilliantly tuneful and as effervescent as the champagne it extols. And fun, tunefulness, and effervescence were certainly on display at Vancouver Opera this week.
From the overture on, we were treated to a good-natured romp, with ebullient orchestral playing, direction, singing, and acting. The cast was clearly having a great time. The sets, from Lyric Opera of Kansas City, were ravishing and drew us in immediately: the charming drawing room and garden of Act 1, the gracious ballroom of Act 2, and the characterful prison of Act 3. They and the costumes from Washington National Opera served to seduce us into giving ourselves over to the characters and their story.
There are two things you can do with farce: play it straight or ham it up. Each yields its pleasures. Playing it straight leaves the laughing to us, providing earnest characters that are all the funnier for taking absurd situations seriously. Hamming it up allows the characters to laugh at themselves, inviting us to do so along with them. The danger in the latter lies in coercing us to do something we would rather do freely. There was a bit of this in Nancy Hermiston’s direction, which left no stone unturned in its efforts to get a laugh, with the cast constantly winking and nudging. The use of music-hall routines in Act 1, for example, threatened to wear thin. On the other hand, everything was so well done that the production’s good nature proved infectious from beginning to end.
And the actors were up for it, all showing verve and good comic timing. A real plus in this regard was the inspired casting of Christopher Gaze of Bard on the Beach as Frosch, the drunken jailor. Frosch is a speaking role and if anyone can speak comic lines it’s Christopher Gaze, as the audience response last night attested. As is common in operetta, the spoken parts were translated into the language of the audience and supplemented with satirical topical allusions. There were plenty of the latter in Ms. Hermiston’s inventive adaptation, with good-natured digs at a number of figures, including Gaze himself and Jonathan Darlington, Music Director of Vancouver Opera and the conductor of the evening. Unfortunately, except for Gaze, I had trouble occasionally making out what some of the characters were saying in their spoken dialogue, particularly Adele and Orlovsky—the latter no surprise with ‘his’ strong Russian accent. This was too bad, as the dialogue contains much of the wit of the operetta, and these characters acted it with such delightful energy. Surtitles for the dialogue would not have been amiss. On balance, however, the energy made up for any lost lines.
The choreography and dance numbers in the ball scene were excellent, making a visual feast of a scene that can fall flat on stage. Even the singers danced convincingly, forming an integral part of the spectacle. In fact, all the singers proved natural actors, whether dancing or speaking or singing. There was a lot of use of the body for comic effect—double takes and mock movements, for example. Roger Honeywell as Eisenstein was excellent in his acting, moving with natural grace and providing much of the humour of the goings on. Hugh Russell as Dr. Falke provided thoroughly convincing and good-natured acting, and David Pomeroy as Alfred was a delight. Andrew Greenwood made a suitably staid prison warden. Suzanne Rigden positively sparkled as a perky and characterful Adele, and Joyce El-Khoury provided a stately Rosalinde, though with a temper you would do well to steer clear of.
Musically, the opera was a joy. The orchestra played stylishly under the baton of Maestro Darlington, and the chorus was splendid, handling its numbers in the second act with effulgence and vocal precision. The exquisite sextet with the principals and chorus—Brüderlein und Schwesterlein—was beautifully sung. The famous waltz concluding the act, sung by septet and chorus, again showed the chorus to glorious advantage. Most of the voices of the principals were excellent. Sadly, however, Roger Honeywell’s voice proved too small for the house and too much of his singing was lost or muffled. Hugh Russell as Dr. Falke sang his role with accomplishment and flair, though not always projecting as well as he might, either. The same was true of Andrew Greenwood as Frank, though his Act 3 exchanges with Adele came through loud and clear. David Pomeroy, on the other hand, could be heard everywhere as the flamboyant tenor, singing with vigor and panache, his high C rep ever at the ready for seduction.
Joyce El-Khoury as Roselinde was outstanding, displaying a gorgeous creamy voice that carried easily through the house, whether forte or piano. She sang her big number, the Act 2 czardas, ravishingly, shaping its lines with grace and depth of feeling. Suzanne Rigden as Adele sang with great élan throughout, and delivered her Act 2 laughing aria, and Act 3 turn as Olga, with virtuosic skill, handling the fioritura brilliantly and showing us what a trill should sound like. Julie Boulianne in her trouser role as Orlovsky was a delight in both acting and singing, sounding splendidly imperious in her Act 2 duet with Eisenstein, Chacun à son goût.
Altogether, the production was hugely enjoyable, with a wonderful cast and the orchestra in fine form, presenting the enchanting and nostalgic Viennese music with exuberance and flair.
© Harvey De Roo 2015