Opera in the Ozarks 2018 Review – Die Fledermaus: A Formidable Cast Enlivens Strauss Jr.’s Famed MasterworkBy Freddy Dominguez
For 68 summers, Northwest Arkansas has been an opera haven for young singers. High atop the Rock Candy Mountain at Inspiration Point in Eureka Springs, amid lush forests and vistas of a golden horizon, Opera in the Ozarks serves as an artist colony for performers from across the United States. The experience culminates in a month-long opera festival — by far Arkansas’ most important operatic event of the year. A visit to the airy stage pavilion promises a sneak peek at future talent in American and international opera circuits. Alumni of the program include, among many others, Hei-Kyung Hong (recent recipient of an Opera News Award), Leona Mitchell, and Mark Delavan.
This year’s season offers three fully-staged works: Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe.” Things got off to a joyous start with an English language performance of Strauss’ operetta.
Taking Champagne Seriously
Every production of “Die Fledermaus” runs the risk of confusing fun with frivolity. Strauss was an entertainer and as such wanted to give his audiences from all quarters of Viennese society what they wanted: easy tunes, rollicking choruses, and propulsive waltzes. But “Fledermaus” has endured as a favorite since 1873 because it extracted all the scintillating elements of traditional light opera and took it to another realm of sophistication. Strauss elevated the genre by adding elegance and complexity to the music and by marrying the score to an organic dramatic whole. So even though it falls back on singing about champagne more than once, and even if the music pops like a Clicquot cork, it is not all about intoxication and not all fun and games. Performers have to maneuver vocal challenges, some fancy footwork, and pull off dramatically credible spoken dialogue.
On opening night most elements fell into place, though it was really all about the singing. If there was often some hesitation in the dialogue, some stilted timing on the spoken repartee, when all the principles broke out into song the audience was treated to thorough professionalism and true talent.
Conductor Stephen Dubberly led the Opera in the Ozarks Orchestra gamely. During the overture, there was perhaps a little excessive drag and lilt early on, but this set up a good contrast with the lively waltz rhythms at the end. As the night proceeded, there was foot-tapping aplenty among audience members to confirm that the players provided the necessary jauntiness and solid support for the singers. When the company as a whole, including a resourceful chorus, got in on the game and the orchestra boomed in ¾ time, it really felt like a party.
Because it is a small pick-up orchestra of about 25, individual playing was more notable than at a big opera company. To my ears, the woodwinds section shone. Bassoonist Carolyn Hupalowsky and clarinetist Orlando Scalia in particular showed off some nuanced, beautiful solo bits and sustained rhythmic energy throughout.
A Formidable Couple
The hijinks of “Die Fledermaus” are orchestrated by Dr. Falke, who seeks revenge for a previous embarrassment: he had been left drunk on a park bench dressed like a bat and woke up to taunting children. He wants to pay back the perpetrator of the prank, Eisenstein. To this end, Falke invites Eisenstein to a party where he will seduce a mystery masked woman who ends up being Rosalinde, Eisenstein’s own wife. Baritone Mark Hockenberry played an understated Falke, preferring the role of dramatic facilitator over that of scene stealer. He showed plenty of glee while executing his plot, but was not an avenger. He was a grown man acting out the naughty urges of a child. Vocally, it took a little while for Hockenberry to warm up or feel comfortable, but by Act two, when Falke has fully staged the “revenge of the Bat” at Prince Orlofsky’s ball, he showed off a clear tone and occasionally a conversational delivery that was discreetly effective.
As Eisenstein, baritone Justin Burgess had an outstanding night. There is a steely quality to his voice that together with immaculate, crisp diction allow for truly forceful delivery. He really knows how to maneuver consonants and vowels to full effect, landing on his “T’s” with authority and using his “A’s” to add depth and color to his tone. Burgess did a great job of accentuating the fact that while Eisenstein is a braggadocious cad through and through, he is also the main dupe of the story. He was able to reveal the character’s foolishness without diminishing the real sense of his own self-regard or his real charm. He was particularly effective in the famous “watch duet” where Eisenstein is seductive even while being played by his wife. He is not a loveable character, but the audience can still understand why his wife might ultimately forgive past peccadilloes.
Rosalinde was played by the appealing soprano, Lydia Pion. Pion has a well-integrated voice with both top and low ends of the register secure. Among the singers on opening night, she had one of the biggest voices, a resonant instrument without any wobble. In many ways her voice reminded me of sopranos of the Italian golden age, a Tebaldi, for example, with its blend of warmth and the potential of ferocity especially at the top. If there was one point where her performance dragged, it was during the czardas that Rosalinde sings in costume as a Hungarian countess. Pion chose to perform the song for laughs, accentuating the artifice of Rosalinde’s alter-ego. This is a legitimate choice, but she did so at the expense of the honest beauty of the piece. She didn’t indulge the audience in what might have been a real showcase for the seductive qualities of her voice. In hamming it up, she also depleted her resources and was occasionally short of breath. In general, though, Pion’s interpretation was forceful. Her Rosalinde seemed to, eventually, be in on every joke and wary of her male counterparts whom she ultimately forgive, on her own terms.
Rosalinde finds herself between her husband and her long-time suitor, the Italian tenor, Alfredo (Strauss’ tip of the hat to Verdi’s La Traviata) played formidably by James Stevens. Stevens appropriately stole every scene he was in– as tenors often do. Of all the performers he, with an absurd, but charming, Italian accent seemed most comfortable with the dialogue and appeared to be the most natural actor on stage. But his funny antics were overshadowed by a clarion voice. Although he was putting on Italianate swagger and overdoing everything he sang as per the swag, he expertly found ways to push each note as far as he could while keeping it beautiful and achieved several blooming effects as he ascended above the staff. Alfredo punctuates his absurdity by singing snatches of standard tenor repertoire. Though these bits were sung to sound over the top, I couldn’t help but want to hear more. I would gladly seek out a recital by this extremely talented young man.
Rosalinde’s chambermaid, Adele, has some of the most sparkling music of the night and Michelle Perrier did it justice. Because the role often stays high in the soprano range, there is a temptation to chirp through it. Perrier steered clear of this danger. While her voice is slender, she is capable of shading notes in the middle and upper parts of her range effectively. There is honey in her tone so that her Adele is more than a thoughtless wannabe social climber, but a woman with plenty of chutzpah who is trying to use her wiles to enter the upper strata of society at Orlofsky’s ball. As an actress Perrier has a knack for slapstick and for using her extreme facial expressions to convey a sense of boredom and/or disgust with her superiors. She also has a knack for giving audiences what they want: the pinging top notes of a true bel canto diva. She was the only performer to truly bring down the house at various points.
Prince Orlofsky appears in the second act and is a bit of a cipher, less host and more witness to Falke’s scheme. Perpetually bored (and a bore himself), he constantly looks to be entertained. Christina Casey brought a velvety mezzo to the role that found a middle way between some kind of nobility and the preposterous. She stood out in her funnily ambivalent and mildly intoxicated “Chacun a son gout,” Orlofsky’s insistence that everyone matches his hedonistic ideals.
Since the nineteenth century “Die Fledermaus” has been escapism: part nostalgia, part evocation of a glittery Viennese life many in the audience aspired too. Coming out as it did in the midst of political and economic turbulence in Austria, it has a fair dose of social commentary (of the upstairs/downstairs kind) even if the dominant social hierarchies are maintained. Throughout, even at the very final moments when aristocratic life is restored, there is a prominent strand of satire and critique. The last act tellingly takes place in a jail. Here the norms of society are all confirmed: aristocrats are on top, other classes are put in their place, and a mutually adulterous marriage between Eisenstein and Rosalinde is resolved. But all this happens within the confines of cages and in this production a claustrophobic municipal prison office, so that the maintenance of society as it was can be read as equal parts privilege and curse.
This production did not delve too deeply into these themes, but performers did not miss opportunities for pointed suggestions here and there. Quite appropriately considering that Strauss himself was playing on Viennese prejudices against Russians, Orlofsky is momentarily turned into a buffo Putin-esque character as he talks about meddling in elections and such. More gratuitous, though still chuckle-worthy, exploits with a newspaper and a cigar in the jail scene led to a comment on fake news.
Director Robert Swedberg seemed to have been gesturing more toward laughs, but I can’t help but think something was being said about the hollowness of elite culture and the social-climbing instincts of those beneath them, both in the early twentieth century (when the show takes place) and today.
This effect was perhaps unwittingly underscored by the production itself. Act one took place in a Eisenstein’s parlor with walls splattered a la Jackson Pollock, a table, a dressing screen and an elegant sofa. Act two in Orlofsky’s villa had little more than a digital projection of a grand ballroom and a round settee. Act three took place in an ingeniously crafted moveable prison office. Erin Ray’s costumes were simple evocations of a glitzy golden age, though some scuffed shoes here and there revealed a limited budget. On the whole, given technical and financial restraints, the production was economical but effective. In ways perhaps unforeseen the bareness of the proceedings emphasized the silliness of it all, the sense that this world of parties, costumes, and double crossing has heart despite the emptiness of the culture it depicts.
Part of the joy of opening night’s experience was linked to the environs. During Act two, as Falke’s “revenge of the bat” began, a real bat fluttered around the stage. A woman sitting next to me– a regular– told me that the bats make an impromptu visit from time to time. She assured me they “are native to the environment.” What might have been a distraction in other circumstances was at the moment a pleasant natural intervention both amusing and unique
A laid back audience, a cool breeze, and a starry night all added to the fine singing and musical merriment. Champagne punch and a madeleine before for the performance and a glass of chilled bubbly after the Act two champagne chorus were special and appreciated touches.