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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Die Fledermaus: The Opera Company of Philadelphia ends its season on a high note (BJ)



Back in those dear, dead days beyond recall, when Philadelphia’s major opera company was flexing its expansionist muscles, a schedule of five productions, featuring both Mozart’s rarely-seen La clemenza di Tito and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, was announced for the 2004/05 season. Financial reverses led to some regrettable cut-backs, and the season as finally constituted offered just four works: Gounod’s Faust, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Verdi’s Aida, and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. But if a roster limited to one serious masterpiece, two charming lightweight comedies, and Gounod’s romantic warhorse looked decidedly short of real artistic substance, the result was decidedly illuminating.



Starting with Faust and ending with Fledermaus, the season progressed from a work that deals with profoundly serious subjects in an essentially frivolous manner to one that treats with arresting seriousness what on the face of it is a merely frothy plot. I have no hesitation in declaring that the latter was much the more rewarding of the two. Leon Major’s production, it is true, attempted to inject some psychological subtlety into the Gounod piece by representing the entire story as a dream, and William Burden, in the title role, did his best with both his active moments and his long stretches of lying around in deep slumber. But despite his best efforts, and the contributions of Mary Mills as a touching Marguerite and the admirable Richard Bernstein as Mephistopheles, frivolity won out, and little remained in the mind afterwards beyond the succession of soldiers’ choruses, drinking songs, and the like that come nowhere near realizing the potential power of Goethe’s story.



Mr. Major did better, I thought, with the next work to be presented, Donizetti’s sparkling Don Pasquale, which also marked the inauguration of Corrado Rovaris in his new capacity as the company’s first music director. Given strong principals, the piece can hardly fail to please, and it had three of those in the shape of Kevin Glavin as the doddering Don, Earle Patriarco as a suitably sly Malatesta, and the irresistible Sari Gruber as Norina, even if Jesús Garcia’s Ernesto suffered from some vocal tightness on the day I saw the production. Aida, again conducted with verve by Rovaris, brought the first of the season’s two operas to be staged by the company’s general and artistic director, Robert Driver. It made a suitably grand and tragic impression, with particularly fine contributions from Angela Brown in the title role, Barbara Dever as Amneris, Tigran Martirossian as Ramfis, and Gregg Baker–an old favorite with the company and its public–as a majestic Amonasro. Renzo Zulian was the announced Radamès, but for the performance I attended he was replaced on account of illness by Dongwon Shin, who acquitted himself honorably.



Then, to round off the season, came Die Fledermaus. I approached it, I must confess, with mixed feelings: this was the work that, when I saw it as my first experience of live opera as a boy of about twelve, put me off the genre altogether. (It was Don Giovanni, just a few months later, that hooked me for ever.) But I have long suspected that the problem was that a comedy of manners so laced with sophistication and irony is simply beyond a child’s comprehension or appreciation, and so it proved, as I now sat through Driver’s effervescent production with the liveliest pleasure.



Aided by Boyd Ostroff’s sumptuous and stylish sets, Richard St. Clair’s handsome costumes, and Drew Billiau’s customarily skillful lighting, Driver hit the mood and milieu of this charming yet far from superficial comedy to perfection. Contemporary references injected into old operas can be annoying, but in this context the modern touches in Driver’s version of the dialogue were just right, including the suggestion that Eisenstein needed full evening dress to go to jail because “he might run into Michael Jackson there,” and his mis-hearing of the “Chevalier” title accorded to prison governor Frank as “Chevrolet.”



A particular bête noire of mine in contemporary production methods is the apparent belief that, in opera, articles of furniture must always be put to uses different from those intended by their makers. Thus a chair should not, heaven forbid, be sat in–it should provide a kneeling letter-writer with support for his paper, or should be used, as should a table, to stand on. In this case, there were just one or two moments when Driver had his performers do such things–and the fact that they were so right in this satirical setting demonstrated exactly why they are so wrong in more serious or literal contexts.



Rovaris conducted with verve, and the cast was uniformly superb. William Burden shook off his Faustian somnolence of a few months earlier and gave us a splendidly confused Eisenstein. Bruce Ford, a potentially major artist with more than a hint of Jon Vickers’s steel in his tenor, was Alfred; Jochen Schmeckenbecher was as impressive as ever as Eisenstein’s friend Dr. Falke; John Davies sang a strong Frank and astonished with an athleticism that seemed unlikely for a man of so solid a physique. Grant Neale, as Frosch, managed his absurd stage business with dazzling aplomb. The adorable Adele was Sarah Tannehill, at once light and firm in vocal line; her sister Ida was well sung and played by Ulrike Shapiro; and Sarah Castle was equally convincing as Orlofsky. Meanwhile, lording (or ladying) it over the whole production was the stunningly stylish Rosalinde of Christine Goerke. This was the best singing and playing I have ever heard or seen from her, and it crowned a production that was a joy from first moment to last. Given that next season includes two of the greatest among operatic comedies in Figaro’s Wedding and The Barber of Seville, this comic triumph was a hopeful augury of delights to come.



Bernard Jacobson

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)