In a production that began its life in Opera Australia’s Sydney and Melbourne homes, Johann Strauss’ quintessentially Viennese operetta, “Die Fledermaus” was mounted by Houston Grand Opera with a stellar cast – with some unexpected role assignments.
The story, transformed from mid-century Austria to a North American metropolis of the 1930s, was translated from German into the vernacular language (the sets representing 1930s New York City and performed in English in Houston, although representing 1930s Montreal and performed in French at the Opera de Montreal earlier this year).
[Below: Rosalinde (Wendy Bryn Harmer, right) bids farewell to her husband, Gabriel Eisenstein (Liam Bonner, left); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The mounting was yet another example of the Opera Australia-Houston Grand Opera connection (and a parallel Opera Australia-Opera de Montreal connection) that has brought Houston Grand Opera new stagings of Britten operas and an upcoming Opera Australia production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” over the next four seasons.
The “Fledermaus” cast included Wendy Bryn Harmer, debuting at HGO as Rosalinde, Susan Graham as Orlofsky, Anthony Dean Griffrey as Alfred, Laura Claycomb as Adele and Liam Bonner as Eisenstein.
[Below: Liam Bonner as Eisenstein; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
(Those who would more readily associate Harmer and Griffey with such opera seria roles such as Vitellia and Titus in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”, rather than Strauss operetta, might not be surprised that several of the cast were originally engaged for the Mozart work. When it was decided to mount HGO’s first “Fledermaus” in 30 years instead of “Clemenza”, the key artists were persuaded to take on quite different roles than was initially planned )
The Manhattan “Bat”
This production relocates the operetta timewise into the 1930s and presents it as taking place on the “silver screen” (the movie’s first titles announce that Houston Grand Opera presents Johann Strauss’ sparkling operetta, “the Revenge of the Bat” and that we are all invited by Prince Orlofsky to an evening in Old Vienna.)
[Below: Laura Claycomb as Adele; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
An historian might note that “Fledermaus” originally premiered during a time of Viennese economic depression. The “old Vienna” it glorified and parodied was a period of conspicuous consumption and spendthrift partygoing that so often accompanies the rapid accumulation of wealth.
The story line fits hand in glove with the sophistication (and pretensions) of the 1930s of Hollywood movies and ritzy Manhattan lifestyles exemplified by Cole Porter, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
[Below: Wendy Bryn Harmer as Rosalinde, with Anthony Dean Griffey (above) as Alfred; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Significantly, at the point in Orlofsky’s party for which stage directors are licensed to interpolate “surprise” party guests, dancers Phillip Broomhead and Krissy Richmond – who are announced as Astaire and Rogers – foxtrot to Porter’s Night and Day.
Locating the operetta in a period that splits the difference between Vienna in the 1860s and our present day works well. After all, the story’s plot lines – straying husband who unknowingly courts his disguised wife, servant girl who affects an “upper class” disguise – are timeless.
[ Below: Samuel Schultz as Dr Falke; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Wendy Bryn Harmer starred as Rosalinde. Although her present fame rests on her jugendlicher Wagnerian roles [see A Richly Rewarding, Re-imagined “Rheingold” – Seattle Opera, August 4, 2013 and World Treasure: Seattle Opera’s Gripping and Glorious “Götterdämmerung” – August 9, 2013], she proved to be an able comedienne.
Harmer’s every word in the English translation could be understood, even when she affected the fake Hungarian accent for her brilliant party Csardas. Well acted and well sung, Harmer’s Rosalinde hints at the range of this artist’s stagecraft.
[Below: Susan Graham as Prince Orlofsky; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Susan Graham has had ample opportunity to show her comic talents this season [see Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.]
After an appropriately over-the-top Grand Duchess, Graham’s portrayal of the chronically bored Orlofsky was appropriately more subdued, yet she sparkled in her big party numbers, inviting her guests to imbibe champagne and to engage in whatever were their preferred behaviors.
[Below Rosalinde (Wendy Bryn Harmer, center) is served by the head waiter (Jason Graae, right) as she dances the Czardas with a line of waiters; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The role of Adele was staged, both in Australia and in Houston, for broad comedy, using an Aussie accent for Down Under and an East Texas twang for Houston.
Laura Claycomb, with Texas roots, met the expectation of the part as staged, even if a case can be made for a less frantic staging of this key role.
That said, Claycomb performed Adele’s big numbers with flair and comic precision.
[Below Eisenstein (Liam Bonner, above right) fails to recognize that the exotic masked Hungarian lady (Wendy Bryn Harmer, seated ) whom he believes he is seducing, is actually his wife; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The most unexpected casting was Anthony Dean Griffey as Alfred.
Griffey is arguably the world’s reigning Peter Grimes [Anthony Dean Griffey’s Imposing Peter Grimes – Houston Grand Opera, November 12, 2010] a role that summons the intense emotion of a troubled outcast. Showing a comic streak he does not often have the opportunity to exploit, Griffey was genuinely funny as the wacky Alfred.
Liam Bonner’s Eisenstein is yet another milestone on the career path of this lyric baritone (who will star in the title role of the Los Angeles Opera’s February 2014 production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”.
Bonner made a strong impression as the errant husband, chastened both by his wife and by Dr Falke (Samuel Schultz), whose determination to avenge himself for being the object of an Eisenstein prank is the motivator of the operetta’s actions.
The role of the Police Superintendent Frank was amusingly played by Michael Sumuel and the lawyer Blind by Reginald Smith, Jr. Uliana Alexyuk was Adele’s actress cousin, Ida.
“Fledermaus” contains the non-singing role of Frosch, the assistant warden who runs the precinct when Frank is out partying. Frosch has become a specialty of comedian Jason Graae. In this production Graae literally was able to put together an extensive and zany one man comedy routine during the early part of the third act.
[Below: Jason Graae as Frosch; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Although Frosch appears only in the third act, stage directors find tasks for him in the earlier acts. Under Lindy Hume’s stage direction, Graae appeared in the first and second act as, respectively, a bellman and a waiter, which used his abundant talents unobtrusively. [For a previous review of Graae’s Frosch, see “Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006.]
The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra was conducted by Thomas Roesner. Richard Roberts designed the sets, Angus Strathie the the costumes.
This production is pure fun, with a fine cast. I recommend it without reservation.
For my review of a previous Houston Grand Opera performances of Laura Claycomb and Susan Graham, see: Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011, and also,
Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011.