Review: “Die Fledermaus” at San Francisco Opera – September 16, 2006

The decision to mount Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”, that zany parody of late nineteenth century Viennese high life, was made after David Gockley was appointed the new General Director of the San Francisco Opera in 2005. The 1990 production, from the era of former General Director Lotfi Mansouri, was sung in usually intelligible English (all but one of the cast were native speakers) although supertitles were provided that approximated what was being sung on stage.

The physical sets were the farewell endeavor of Wolfram Skalicki, whom former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler had tapped for no fewer than 18 productions during the 1960s. The production was serviceable, only at times reminding one that many of Skalicki’s mid-century sets had a flat and dark appearance. In this production they framed the lavish costumes of Thierry Bosquet (then his first assignment with the San Francisco Opera), and 16 years later they are as fresh and enchanting as when they originally appeared. Each costume throughout the three acts is an individual work of art. It, however, is the scene at Orlofsky’s masquerade ball that unleashes Bosquet’s imagination, which rummages through images from Central Asia, the Subcontinent and the Burgundian Court, to dress principals and choristers alike in exotic fare.

That representatives of the best of the operetta form belong in a major opera companys standard repertory was settled long ago for San Francisco, “Fledermaus” having been mounted five times in three productions since 1965. Dame Joan Sutherland, one of the twentieth century artists who had the power to announce when and in which operas she would appear, chose San Francisco for two of her forays into operetta territory – the Strauss masterpiece in 1973 and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” in 1981.

The “Fledermaus” production provided both an opportunity to savor new artists, and to re-connect with others important to San Francisco Opera’s past. Reconnections included Mansouri himself. Scarce during the tenure of General Opera Director Pamela Rosenberg, he returned to direct his 1990 production, with commitments in place to future assignments with this opera company with whom his long career has been intertwined.

[Below: Wolfgang Brendel (Eisenstein), seated, with Brian Leerhuber (Dr Falke). Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Another re-connection was with Wolfgang Brendel, playing Gabriel von Eisenstein, with a noticeable but rarely obtrusive German accent. Brendel had debuted in 1979 Rodrigo as in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” with Giocomo Aragall and Anna Tomowa-Sintow, and returned for the new production in 1980 of Saint-Saens “Samson et Dalila”, with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett (recorded for posterity on commercially available DVD). His proficiency in Mozart operas was demonstrated in the title role of “Don Giovanni” in 1984 and in 1991 “Summer of Mozart” appearances as Count Almaviva in “Nozze di Figaro”.

[Below: Christine Goerke as Rosalinda.  Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The debuts were impressive. I had seen the Rosalinde, Christine Goerke, in Paris at the Palais Garnier in 2002 as Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. In Paris she showed her command of Mozart (her reputation was established by her performances of eighteenth century masterpieces). In San Francisco she proved to be an adept operetta comedian, controlling a large voice to blend beautifully with the ensemble cast. This being operetta, all cast members had not only to master the spoken word, but to have the timing to sustain the comic momentum and draw audience laughter.

Goerke proved an adept comedienne. A larger woman than Jennifer Welch-Babidge, the Adele, and rumored to be expecting, Goerke, in a masterful aside, accused Adele of wearing a dress stolen from her closet, cut down a couple of sizes. But Goerke’s extraordinary vocal resources suggest her future will be centered in the roles of the “other Strauss” – Richard (the title role in his “Ariadne auf Naxos” and the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” have been added to her repertory) – and Richard Wagner (she is singing Senta in “Die Fliegende Hollaender” and Elizabeth in “Tannhauser”). For those who read my 50-year anniversary web-pages, these were the “Leonie Rysanek” roles in the 1950s.

[Below: Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Adele) and Eugene Brancoveanu (Frank). Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Two other debuts showcased young artists in the early parts of promising careers. Brian Leerhuber, whose local credits including leading baritone roles at the Opera San Jose, was the Dr Falke. Vale Rideout, as the lovelorn operatic tenor, Alfred, regaled us with the expected snatches from such Italian standards as Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, but also a snippet from the aria “Ah levetoi soleil”, possibly to alert us to the fact that he is cast as Romeo in this season’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” in Tampa. One artist who had debuted in the Rosenberg era, Welch-Babidge, “Blonde” in San Francisco’s 2002 production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” confirmed in her sprightly Adele that the praise that Gockley has for this artist is deserved.

[Below: Gerald Thompson as Prince Orlofsky.  Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Two second year Adler Fellows, incumbents in the prestigious internship that San Francisco Opera offers a select number of young artists, had “breakout” roles that should help establish their international careers. Gerald Thompson, the first counter-tenor to hold an Adler Fellowship, had been noticeable in the role of Unulfo, even in the shadows of David Daniels, the great counter-tenor who starred as Bertarido in Handel’s “Rodelinda” in the Fall, 2005 San Francisco production. But in “Fledermaus”, Thompson transformed the often problematic role of Prince Orlofsky, the madcap and dissolute Russian aristocrat, into a musical and comedic triumph. Dressed in an exotically offbeat costume, Thompson sometimes seemed a dead ringer for Marilyn Horne portraying male heroes in Rossini, Handel and Vivaldi operas.

Another second year Adler Fellow, Romanian baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, cast as the jailer Frank, also left a strong impression. His previous roles were distinctly of the comprimario type (as are other roles this season). But he and another Adler fellow, Sean Panikkar, deserved praise as the First and Second Prisoners in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in 2005 and Brancoveanu’s Christian (Silvano) in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” in 2006 was also noteworthy. Brancoveanu shone from the outset in the first act interplay with Goerke and Rideout, but Frank’s juiciest stage business is in the third act, set in the antechamber of the prison of whom he is warden.

[Below: the Fledermaus finale.  Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Here the character returns, sloshed to the gills, having enjoyed too many glasses of champagne at Orlofsky’s ball. Playing an uncoordinated drunkard requires considerable coordination, particularly with Mansouri’s tightly choreographed staging. Here Broncoveanu proved to be a hilarious physical comedian, staggering about, swinging on poles and railings and at one point stumbling into a forward somersault The other two singing parts also were well-cast. Dennis Petersen, a company veteran, evoked laughs as the stuttering lawyer, Dr Blind. Melody Moore, a new Adler fellow, did a good job as Adele’s sister, Ida.

The non-singing part of Frosch the jailer appears only in the third act in the published score. This role is traditionally assigned to a notable comedian. Previous seasons have utilized the comic talents of the venerable Walter Slezak, of Arte Johnson from the 1970s television show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”, and of Bay Area radio and theatre personality Scott Beach. For this production, Broadway performer and comedian Jason Graae, whose credits include Gockley’s former employer, the Houston Grand Opera and a long list of Broadway productions, stole the spotlight as the Third Act Frosch,

Understanding fully that this role can be the wackiest assignment in the standard operatic repertory, he approached it with the energy of a young Steve Martin (an occasional gesture made in obvious homage to him). Graae, in a physical performance that might have gotten a smirk even from Buster Keaton, knows how to connect with an operatic audience. The outbursts from the jailed Alfred provide whomever is the Frosch-of-the-day with abundant opportunities to make jabs at the tenor class and to all things operatic. Graae, making reference to a performance in English that might not always be intelligible stepped to the footlights and pointed up to the War Memorial’s supertitles.

Graae also appeared, less successfully, in the second act as Ivan, Orlofsky’s servant. Thompson’s Orlofsky provided all the outrageousness the ball scene needs and Graae’s superfluous slapstick was unnecessary there.

Even more regrettably, Graae also appeared in the first act in an extra-textual appearance as Frosch, tagging behind Frank, his boss. Frank’s mission it is to deposit Eisenstein in jail before he avails himself of an invitation to Orlofsky’s ball. The comic set-up requires Frank to be convinced that no man dressed in bedclothes, excepting her husband, could be found at the home of an upper class married woman. It spoils the set-up and mood if Frank allows his employee to run through the house, with over-the-top monkey business that includes aggressively grabbing and kissing the hand of a lady who has just made the point that she expects gentlemen to assume that she observes social conventions.

Graae earned his fee for the performance with appearances in three acts where other Frosches appear once. However, Graae’s first two appearances were distractions, and for some may even have devalued his nicely conceived third act stagecraft.

There you have it! The first production of the Gockley era that was personally chosen by Gockley himself, is strongly cast and superbly presented, my only reservation being that the presentation in two acts of a first rate comedian in non-existent, non-speaking roles was just too much of a good thing.