IU Opera changes the mood with ‘Die Fledermaus’

By Peter Jacobi

 

In terms of story content, themes, musical style and purpose, for an opera company to switch from Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” to Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” is about as jarring as can be. The repertoire and production gap is huge.

So it is for a ticket purchaser who came from experiencing the tragic happenings in Heggie’s opera and decides now to go to the madcap doings in the Strauss operetta. But Indiana University Opera Theater has decided to make the leap, in expectation that those ticket purchasers will be game to make the leap as well. The leaping begins Friday evening, when — for the ninth time in its history — the company opens its staging of the Strauss, widely considered the masterpiece of choice in the operetta genre.

A bonus for those who do leap is a new production, with settings by one of the nation’s most prominent scenic artists, Allen Moyer. He owns a long list of credits involving operas, musicals and plays. His partners on the creative team are IU’s own Arthur Fagen, a veteran with gobs of conducting credits and always a favorite here when he wields the baton for an opera or a symphonic concert, and stage director Robin Guarino, who has worked at venues stretching from the Met all the way west to Seattle. Guarino also teaches at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, this following years on the faculty at the Juilliard School.

Here we are. Our opera season opened with laugh-producing comedy, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville;” it shifted to heavy drama, “Dead Man Walking” and now returns to comedy. That’s a pretty good idea. Considering all the gloomy headlines, we need the uplift. A happy show can do that.

Curiously, “Fledermaus” was born in 1874 during a period of struggle, a stock market collapse. Folks in Vienna weren’t in the mood, and the premiere production couldn’t quite turn the emotional tide. There were far fewer performances than had been predicted. But then came a follow-up production in Berlin. It was a smashing success. Word got back to Vienna and, suddenly, more successes erupted. Before year’s end, the operetta had been seen by audiences in an estimated 200 European cities, plus across the Atlantic in New York. Strauss was a name on people’s tongues.

The convoluted plot, taken from prior theater pieces, revolves around an act of revenge between friends. Seems that one friend, Gabriel von Eisenstein, dumped another, Dr. Falke, in a public park while still asleep from too much drinking. Falke awoke to public ridicule because he was still dressed in costume for the party he had attended; the costume being that of a bat, a fledermaus. Falke’s revenge becomes the story of the operetta, a tale of romantic intrigues and masked identities, each and all designed to embarrass his friend, and that takes a host of other characters, some scheming, some foolish.

It is the music that makes the difference and raises “Die Fledermaus” into the ranks of the best in operettas: the melodies in waltz time, the occasional polka, the czardas, the gusto that enfolds the score.

Designer Moyer and director Guarino have placed the action for this new production in a hotel, like the fictional one in the 2014 film comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” or the real-life and legendary one, the old Hotel Esplanade in Berlin. With the wagons on the MAC stage, Moyer told me, “The settings can be maneuvered on and off and give us changes of scene within the world of the hotel, thereby adding variety to what the audience sees, and to do so without interfering with the score. It’s a big show that taxes resources, but it can be done here and will. As designer, I like it when a production can show off the capabilities of a theater. This production can.”

“We’re deep into rehearsals,” said Guarino, “I love this piece, and it’s a far remove from what I usually stage these days. It’s a fantastic challenge, so much fun to work on. We’re having a good time. The help here is so fantastic. You have Kevin Murphy, the best of all coaches. You have Carol Vaness, one of the best Rosalindas in the world. You have Wolfgang Brendel and his great understanding of operettas. We can’t go wrong.”

I told her that I love the first two acts and dislike the third, developed around the drunken jailer Frosch. “Oh, we’re taking care of that,” she answered. “We’ve tightened the third act considerably. I think you’ll approve.”

What about the language, I asked. Conductor Fagen and director Guarino agreed on an oft-used formula: to use the original German when the characters sing and an English translation when they talk. “Some people don’t like the mix,” said Guarino, “but it’s the best of both worlds for the singers and, probably, for the audience. I’ve done a rewrite of the text to sharpen the dialogue.”

“I haven’t done ‘Fledermaus’ for some years,” said Maestro Fagen. “It’s what young conductors do in German opera houses. I spent five years at the Vienna State Opera, during which I developed a sensibility for the real Viennese style. But I’m glad to have the chance once again to do ‘Fledermaus.’ Rehearsals are going well. The casts are working hard. I’ve got the Philharmonic in the pit, a very responsive group. We’re working hard on style.”

When we depart at operetta’s end, what should we have experienced, I asked.

“That you’ve had a very entertaining, fulfilling time and that you laughed while enjoying Strauss’ phenomenal music,” said director Guarino.

“That pure, sheer entertainment has caused you to enjoy the comedy and, most of all, the music, which is exquisite,” said conductor Fagen.

Contact Peter Jacobi at pjacobi@heraldt.com.

If you go

WHO AND WHAT: Indiana University Opera Theater offers a new production of the Johann Strauss operetta, “Die Fledermaus,” with two alternating casts. Arthur Fagen is music director and conductor; Robin Guarino is stage director; Walter Huff is chorus master; Allen Moyer is the designer.

WHEN: Friday and Saturday this week and next. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Musical Arts Center on the Indiana University Bloomington campus.

TICKETS: Opening night, general seating, $25 for adults, $12 for students. Remaining nights, reserved seating, $16-$42 for adults, $10-$27 for students.

 

© Herald Times 2015

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