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Seen and Heard International Opera Review



Johann Strauss, Jr.: Die Fledermaus  Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Gerard Schwarz, dir. Chris Alexander, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 15 & 18.1.2006 (BJ)



The last work of lyric theater that I saw before leaving Philadelphia turned out, as it happened, to be also the first I encountered after moving to the Seattle area. Reviewing the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s delightful production back in June, I described Die Fledermaus as a work that “treats with arresting seriousness what on the face of it is a merely frothy plot.” That characterization was supported perhaps even more strongly by the Seattle Opera’s presentation–though more for musical than dramatic reasons.

Gerard Schwarz was clearly intent on revealing what superb inspiration Johann Strauss lavished on his most popular operetta. The conductor gave due weight to the specifically Viennese aspects of the score, but refrained from any exaggeration of such touches as the anticipated second beat in waltz tempo. For the most part, this was simply wonderful music, finely sung (of that, more in a moment) and beautifully played by the company’s orchestra, drawn largely from the ranks of Maestro Schwarz’s Seattle Symphony. So far as the staging was concerned, Chris Alexander was no less eager to point up the laughs than Robert Driver had been in Philadelphia, and the results were equally convivial, if at moments seemingly a touch less spontaneous. Zack Brown’s sets and costumes, retained from earlier Seattle stagings of the piece, added enormously to the pleasure of a highly responsive audience: the tableau at the end of the second act in particular, with more than twenty characters lined up at the front of the stage, each one more gorgeously attired than the next, was a sight to delight in. Nicola Bowie’s choreography, too, provided some exhilarating moments, executed with considerable daring by an attractive group of dancers.

The Seattle Opera’s tightly packed schedule offers nine performances in only 15 days, including one on Saturday evening followed by a Sunday matinee on each weekend. As a result, there is usually some double casting. This time around, the doubling involved just the two principal leads, Rosalinde and Eisenstein. I took the opportunity of seeing and hearing both casts. What I suppose must be regarded as the deputies were Julie Makerov and Roger Honeywell, whose performance I attended first on a Sunday afternoon. They did extremely well both vocally and dramatically (though Honeywell’s Eisenstein was perhaps a shade too silly even for this confused character) without quite extinguishing excited anticipation of hearing their alternates three days later. The rest of the cast was excellent too. Sarah Coburn was outstanding as a strongly sung and visually fetching Adele, Nancy Maultsby offered a suitably saturnine yet mercurial Prince Orlofsky, Alan Woodrow contributed an aptly single-minded (or simple-minded?) Wagnerian Alfred, and everyone else did his or her bit with relish.

Then came Wednesday, when Jane Eaglen, no less, and Richard Berkeley-Steele resumed the two central roles. By some mischance I had never previously heard either of them, and their sterling singing–and playing–brought home how regrettable that was. It was of set purpose that the company’s experienced general director, Speight Jenkins, chose two leading Wagnerians for a work usually left to lighter voices. I would not necessarily want to hear Johann Strauss this way every time, but it made a refreshing and highly satisfying experience on this occasion. Eaglen gave us a sumptuously and creamily sung Rosalinde, while dramatically she was at once charming and hilarious, and Berkeley-Steele was scarcely less successful as her inveterately frivolous husband. One musical point that struck me as especially illuminating was the way Maestro Schwarz responded to the differing vocal qualities of his two casts: the rhetorical moments, particularly in the waltz sequence at the ball, were noticeably bigger and more impressive when Eaglen and Berkeley-Steele were on hand than they had been for Makerov and Honeywell.

The production was sung in English, which I think was a pity. I also think that providing English supertitles for a production sung in English indicates a regrettable want of confidence in one’s singers. The distrust was certainly misplaced, for the words of both the soloists and the chorus were admirably clear. In the case of such solecisms in the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation as the egregious “so unique,” it could be said that the singing was too clear. But such additional lines as the one the not exactly emaciated Ms. Eaglen was sporting enough to deliver when she encountered her maid wearing borrowed clothes at the ball–“She’s wearing half my dress!”–went far to outweigh any such curmudgeonly complaints. So let me conclude by declaring that, like everyone on stage in the second act, I had a ball.



Bernard Jacobson



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