An exuberant cast, a gorgeous production and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s irresistible tunes added up to a sparkling evening with “Die Fledermaus” to open the Cincinnati Opera season.
Performed in English, the text of Strauss’ bubbly operetta was given a witty updating by Robin Guarino, who was making her company debut as director. Her agile staging and clever twists kept the opening night audience engaged – and sometimes laughing out loud — from beginning to end. At its conclusion, the full house (seating 2,250 when the orchestra pit is used) stood and cheered.
At its heart, “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”) is a drawn-out tale of revenge for a long-ago practical joke. The operetta entertained the Viennese when it debuted in 1874, but its inside jokes and lengthy dialogue can grow tedious to modern audiences. Guarino’s adaptation and streamlining of David Pountney’s translation from the original German worked wonderfully.
It was a visual treat as well. For the new co-production with Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Guarino and scenic designer Allen Moyer set the entire operetta in a fading, but still grand, hotel, where the Eisensteins are staying on New Year’s Eve. It’s an ingenious concept because the hotel setting provides an opulent ballroom for the ball and a “jail” lockup in the concierge’s office where Eisenstein is to stay for cheating at cards in the casino. The role of the jailer is merged into Frank, the concierge (performed with flair by Thomas Dreeze).
As the overture played, the curtain rose on a charming vignette in Vienna’s Imperial Hotel, as visitors checked in, children scampered and bellhops put on their own little pantomime. People entered and exited through a working revolving door, elevator and down a grand staircase. (Lest patrons were missing Music Hall, the elegant design included a grand chandelier.)
Heading the fine cast was soprano Nicole Cabell, who sang with a rich tone and delivered a nuanced performance as Rosalinde, wife of the philandering Eisenstein. One of the highlights was her soulful Czardas (in disguise as the Hungarian countess), which was beautifully expressive and enhanced by effortless high notes.
As her husband – now on the receiving end of a practical joke – tenor Zach Borichevsky offered robust singing and plenty of theatrical swagger in his company debut. One of the comedic highlights was his confrontation with his wife’s alleged lover, Alfred, using an umbrella as a weapon. She cooled them both off with seltzer water.
Also making her debut, soprano Nicole Haslett was alluring as the chambermaid Adele. Her crystalline voice and coloratura fireworks provided some of the evening’s most enjoyable moments. She is clearly an artist to watch.
The superb lyric tenor Alek Shrader impressed in the role of Alfred, the unemployed tenor who is locked up instead of Eisenstein. And just as impressive was Hadleigh Adams, who as Dr. Falke was a good match for Eisenstein in vocal heft and vitality as he sought revenge on his friend.
In the “pants” role of Prince Orlofsky, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor wielded a thick Russian accent and a mellifluous voice and acted the role of the bored prince with aplomb.
And of course, there were dancing girls in shimmery hot pants and top hats, with engaging choreography – complete with can-can kicks – by Cincinnati Ballet’s Sarah Hairston. The chorus, prepared by Henri Venanzi, shone as the exuberant revelers. In the end, they lustily agreed that “it was all the fault of the champagne.”
Then there was Strauss’ effervescent score – a Viennese time warp of waltzes, gallops and polkas. Leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit, conductor David Charles Abell deftly caught the nuance and grace of the music. He allowed the music to breathe, and supported the cast flawlessly. The 62-piece orchestra responded with refined playing.
The time period between the wars perfectly captured the aura of Viennese nostalgia that pervades this piece. Costumes by Candice Donnelly added a glamorous touch. The final scene, when the action moved back into the ballroom, was real “coup de théâtre” that drew applause. (Without revealing all, it was achieved by backstage staff pushing the massive set on wagons.)
Thursday’s show in Procter & Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center was also the debut of the company’s home for two years while Music Hall is a construction zone. Although not as acoustically warm as Music Hall, the Aronoff provided clear sound and excellent sight lines. I had trouble hearing some of the female singers, as well as the mid-range tones in the orchestra from my seat under a balcony.
Cincinnati Opera’s performances were dedicated to victims of the tragedy in Orlando. The opening weekend was dedicated as well to devoted supporter Dr. Robert J. Hasl, who died in April.
Original article can be found here at cincinnati.com