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Lyric Opera

In Vienna, and all over the world, the New Year is toasted with productions of Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus, but holiday performances of the work are virtually unknown in Chicago. This year, however, Lyric Opera is doing a brand new production of the popular operetta, sung in English, in celebration of the company's 35th anniversary.

The debate about whether opera companies have any business producing operettas is ever popular. Die Fledermaus was shunned by Viennese opera companies until 20 years after its premiere, and Strauss himself dreaded the prospect of the light operetta sagging under the weight of an operatic approach--he even considered revising it for operatic presentation. Still, the work was eventually to find considerable success in the opera house, and no less a "serious" music figure than Gustav Mahler conducted it in Hamburg. Today opera companies produce the work routinely with varying results.

This debate is similar to the current debate about whether opera companies should produce Broadway musicals; in fact, musical and operetta are virtual synonyms in that both are sung dramas dependent on much spoken dialogue to move the action along. Much of the debate boils down to one issue: does one hire actors who can sing, or singers who can act? Or more probably, actors who can do some singing, or singers who can do some acting?

Die Fledermaus is a work bursting with beautiful melody and music, light though they may be. There is little question that having trained voices sing the roles helps ensure that the music is communicated effectively. But projecting emotion and story through singing alone, particularly in a language foreign to an audience that is dependent on projected supertitles for the content, is far different from alternating singing with acted dialogue. I certainly agree in principle that an opera company has the right to stage an operetta, or for that matter, a musical. But when it does, special care must be taken to avoid certain pitfalls. Unfortunately, Lyric's present production has not avoided them.

The cast assembled by Lyric is made up of singers who have little understanding of how to communicate to each other or an audience through the spoken word. What's worse, when I heard them, their English diction was so bad (with exceptions here and there) that, at least in the cavernous Civic Opera House, any hope of understanding what was being sung was all but lost. Much of the spoken dialogue was understandable, if for no other reason than that it was slightly amplified and was often simply shouted out by the principals. The result is something of a cross between college Gilbert and Sullivan and Sherwood Schwartz television comedy. If you find the acting on The Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island convincing, you'll buy most of the caricatures here.

Hakan Hagegard, who was to have sung Eisenstein, canceled, a disappointment second only to Pavarotti's cancellation at the beginning of the season. Hagegard fits the Eisenstein persona to a T musically and dramatically, and his absence cast a long shadow over this production. Stepping in for him was British baritone Thomas Allen, who was already in town as Figaro in Lyric's concurrently running The Barber of Seville. He sang the role credibly and his acting was adequate, but he didn't display the charismatic and comic presence he had as Figaro. His style was too reserved, and his thick British accent didn't help transport us to Vienna. Louis Otey takes over the role for the rest of the run.

Another leftover performer from a recent production was tenor Neil Rosenshein, the very unimpressive lead of Lyric's Don Carlo. His weak, pinched tenor is hard enough to endure by itself, but giving him a comic role with lots of dialogue (Alfredo) is asking for trouble. Speaking and singing in a painfully cliched Italian accent, Rosenshein offered us the same hammy tenor he has a number of times before, in a bizarre attempt to parody what he already is. Jorge Lopez-Yanez will sing the final two performances.

Soprano Barbara Daniels sang the role of Rosalinda with a pretty wavery tone, though often with flat top notes--perhaps this was for comic effect, but I didn't find it funny. She also overacted considerably in her speaking bits. Adele, the chambermaid and would-be actress, was sung by coloratura Barbara Bonney in her Lyric debut. She had the clearest tone and diction in the cast, though she too overacted in the dialogue sections.

Dr. Falke, the "Fledermaus" (bat) of the title, was sung by baritone Timothy Nolen, who played the role as if he was doing Gilbert and Sullivan--very mannered and pseudo-British. Still, his was certainly one of the better performances of the evening, undoubtedly because in addition to his operatic training he does a lot of theater. He opens the show with a long explanation of the practical joke he is playing on his friend Eisenstein, in revenge for having been left drunk in the town square dressed as a bat after a costume ball three years earlier. I have always found this option of introducing the work rather ineffectual, as it takes away from the audience's usual surprise at learning, along with Eisenstein, exactly what is going on.

Another mannered accent came from mezzo-soprano Anne Howells in the trouser role of the teenage Orlovsky, the Russian prince who throws the huge party that makes up the second act. (In the original French play, it was a Christmas Eve party. That not being pious enough for the Viennese public, the party was transferred to an unspecified time, although it is often now turned into a New Year's celebration.) Howells certainly looks the part and caught the impetuous energy of the character, often speak-singing her bits, throwing champagne, and even making fun of the orchestra once or twice. The jail warden role was credibly performed, if again overdone, by longtime bass favorite Donald Adams, while the speaking-only role of the jailer was filled with the slurred screaming of Zale Kessler.

The only thing the least bit Viennese about this production was the conducting of Julius Rudel, who evoked considerable charm from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Rudel did his best to keep things balanced, light, and brisk--all to great effect. He brought great subtlety and variety of tempi, dynamics, and color to the music, which is apt to sound corny in the wrong hands. He revealed the score to be a true masterpiece of elegant construction.

The Lyric Opera Chorus was as scattered and hard to understand as ever. The new sets were adequate if not opulent. The costumes were impressive and there was much color in the second act, which had jugglers, dancers, a cyclist, and even a live, temperamental ocelot. The substitute for the second-act ballet--and also for the curtain calls--was the "Thunder and Lightning" polka, which was well danced by a small troupe. However, there was no second-act gala concert, and the production screamed out for one.

Certain contemporary adaptations were made to the libretto, which is customary. These, however, were in pretty poor taste. There were mentions of Chicago and Lyric that weren't funny and had nothing to do with the operetta; the prince sings of how easily he gets bored, then mentions that there's always Oprah Winfrey and Lyric Opera. Now there's excitement, eh? Still, that remark can't compare to Rosenshein's saying "You should hear me as Don Carlo," followed by loud cast (as opposed to audience) applause. Rosenshein takes a bow and says, "Chicago, Chicago, my kind of town. Mike Ditka, eat your heart out." Pass the puke bags.

The biggest problem with this production is that Lyric is simply out of its element. It would be wonderful to see what Chicago Opera Theater and Alan Stone could do with it. They are used to having their singers be understood in English, and they've always taken a much more theatrical approach. There would be fewer big names, but I'd be willing to bet that Stone could cast the work more convincingly without them.


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