Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Young and Bubbly Operetta

Die Fledermaus
Johann Strauss
NY Opera Exchange
November 7, 2014 - Church of the Covenant

From the moment we took our seats, it felt like something extraordinary was happening: the average age of the public was clearly under 30, which is about 4 decades younger than the usual crowd at pretty much any opera performance in NYC, whether mainstream or indie. And it gets better: during the waltzy overture several patrons were itching to dance in their seats, swinging heads, shaking shoulders and tapping their feet, which also very unusual from the average snoozing public. The energetic crowd was not deceived as NY Opera Exchange’s Die Fledermaus turned out to be a whole lot of fun and an all around highly entertaining evening at the operetta.

This was my first “‘Maus” and I was surprised by how much I liked it. It’s truly a bubbly and lighthearted piece with terrific music and hilarious comic vignettes. Director Melissa Frey’s decision to present the piece with recitatifs in English translation and arias sung in the original German was very successful in keeping the gags alive for the non-German speaking public. While I am generally a purist when it comes to tampering with the original language of an opera, in this specific case I found NY Opera Exchange’s to be a welcome compromise between respect for the source material and approachability. Also, the original itself already had recitatif bits in English, Italian, French and Russian, representing the cosmopolitan hodge-podge of languages spoken in Vienna at the end of the XIX century. So, expanding a bit the English parts did not sound too awkward.

The plot boils down to a complicated prank to the detriment of an entitled (and a bit dense) nobleman orchestrated by a vindictive friend of his (the eponymous “bat” of the title). A broad and disparate cast of characters is somehow involved in the scheme, including the nobleman’s flirty wife, her ex-lover (an Italian tenor), a maid cum actress, an extravagant party-throwing Russian prince, a prison guard and a lousy lawyer. The director’s notes state that the action was set in Venice (instead of Vienna) and the piece got a commedia dell’arte spin. Quite honestly I did not get that much of an Italian flavor from the production but little matters as I found it highly effective in conveying the effervescent spirit of the operetta.

Rosalinde (the flirty wife) is by far the character with the most stage time and the most challenging and extensive singing. Soprano Margaret Newcomb was outstanding and the strongest singer on stage, both in her solo arias and in the numerous duets, trios and other ensemble pieces. Her acting was on point too, with a snobbish and elegant flair representing Rosalinde as a two-faced yet charming woman one cannot entirely dislike. Her husband, Gabriel von Einstein, was played by tenor Kevin Delaney, who had outstanding acting skills and great comic timing but unfortunately the strength of his singing did not match his other talents, particularly in ensemble pieces when he tended to get drowned by the orchestra and the other performers. I found Rosalinde’s old flame, Alfred, to be one of the funniest characters, delivering bits of blockbuster arias (Una furtiva lagrima, Che gelida manina, Libiamo nei lieti calici) in a parody of Italian opera that really elicited a few belly laughs. This Italian tenor was hilariously portrayed by Lindell O. Carter, who was 100% in character even in the recitatifs feigning a thick Italian accent.

Coloratura soprano Rebecca Shorstein, in the role of Adele (the ambitious maid), delivered some excellent and challenging singing although her acting was often a tad too forceful, unnecessarily pushing the envelope into the slapstick side of things. If only she toned it down a notch, she would have been perfect. Mezzo-soprano Chelsea Laggan as Prince Orlofsky was the best well-rounded performer, together with Ms. Newcomb. Hers is a pants role in which she plays an ennuied and slightly despotic aristocrat who participates in the prank with detached bemusement, all the while laying some heavy flirtation on Adele. Ms. Laggan’s voice is velvety and her singing fluid and nuanced, definitely a young artist to keep an eye on. Bass-baritone Costas Tsourakis played Dr. Falke (the mastermind behind the joke) with commanding stage presence and a deep, rich tone. Of lighter voice weight compared to Mr. Tsourakis, bass-baritone Andrew Luzania was the prison guard Frank, who displayed some pretty hilarious acting (particularly when he pretends to be a French aristocrat), not to mention during his waltzes (with real like partners as well as with a broom), and he also delivered generally solid singing.

The NY Opera Exchange orchestra is a serious sized one (45 musicians), even more so for an independent opera company. It was energetically led by conductor David Leibowitz and, with the exception of a slightly disjointed overture that I’d attribute to opening night jitters, delivered an impressive display of musical firepower, bubbly and waltzy, the way it should be. Delicious! Costumes and sets were also serious business and noteworthy for the level of polish, inventiveness and cohesion, particularly for a company of this size.

All in all, I was very impressed by the work of NY Opera Exchange that put together a seriously entertaining operetta and left us wanting for more. Next in their season is Lucia di Lammermoor and we’ll be curious to see how this young company copes with our most beloved Donizetti.

- Lei & Lui

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