Catapulted into the role of Rosalinde, soprano Lisa Vroman had the five-and-a-half-hour flight from California to New Jersey to review the part, and nine rehearsals before stepping onstage at McCarter Theater to star in Opera New Jersey’s lively production of Johann Strauss, Jr’s “Die Fledermaus,” the first of three performances. The comedy plays also Friday evening, February 20, in Morristown, and Sunday, February 22, in New Brunswick’s State Theater.
Vroman fused seamlessly into a very even ensemble of strong voices whose acting skills and bent for comedy made for a sparkling production. This was a taut ensemble piece with all the participants helping each other toss the shenanigans across the footlights to the audience. Responding with appreciative chuckles, the audience kept the comic spiral moving ever upwards.
The action is based on an elaborate plot by Dr. Falke (the mellow-voiced baritone Keith Phares) to avenge his humiliation by Eisenstein (tenor Allan Glassman), who abandoned him in his bat costume to find his way home by daylight during Carnival. The revenge will play out at the ball of Prince Orlofsky (mezzo-soprano Leah Summers), a determinedly bored aristocrat.
Eisenstein is the victim not only of Falke, but also of his inept lawyer, Dr. Blind (tenor Anthony Laciura); and of his wife, Rosalinde, who steals the watch by which he seeks to seduce her when she turns up at Orlofsky’s ball disguised as a Hungarian countess.
Alfred (tenor Tonio DiPaolo) lavishes an Italian accent on both his spoken and sung passages as he re-visits Rosalinde, his former sweetheart, who finds his voice irresistible. Mistaken for Rosalinde’s husband, Eisenstein, he is led off to jail, but not before he engages Rosalinde in two giant-sized spine-bending embraces.
As the enterprising maid of Eisenstein and Rosalinde, Adele (soprano Rachele Gilmore) turns up at Orlofsky’s ball wearing one of Rosalinda’s ball gowns, pretends to be an actress, and dispenses coloratura passages that are metaphors for her ebullient character. She has been invited to attend by her sister, Ida (Allison Pohl), a ballet dancer. Prison director Frank (baritone David Ward) introduced at Orlofsky’s ball as Chevalier Chagrin, and the hapless Eisenstein, introduced at the ball as Marquis Renard, bumble through mock conversation in faux French, their supposed native language.
Jailer Frisch emits rapid-fire amusement in a monologue that ranges from the traditional “This is not an opera house; this is a respectable prison” to satirical takes on current events. Frosch (Anthony Laciura, who also plays the incompetent lawyer Blind) adds physical comic effects to his spoken jokes. The singers appear to relish the characters that they play.
Director Ira Siff and the design team apply theatrical magic that makes the show a major production and makes the actual stage work as if it were bigger than it really is. Mary Pat Robertson is responsible for the ingenious choreography that turns Act Two into a teeming ball scene. Patricia Hibbert took the audience back more than a century and into a world of aristocratic elegance by her costumes.
The full orchestra onstage plays behind a scrim in front of which the plot unfolds. Imbedded in the scrim are windows defining the indoor spaces in which the action takes place during Acts One and Two. In Act Three the bars of jail cells define the space. With the orchestra barely illuminated, the stage seems vast.
A delicious unnatural moment takes place when Rosalinde directs the orchestra to start playing and conductor Mark Flint responds in his own normal voice. Throughout, the orchestra maintains just the right pacing for the production.
Contact between instrumentalists and singers takes place through monitors at the front of the stage. Singers steal glances at the screens as they cavort.
A perky English translation, laden with internal rhymes, fits the music excellently and avoids tongue-twisters. The accompanying English surtitles at McCarter were often difficult to read, perhaps because of lighting conditions. However, the pace and clarity of the action made them unessential.
The vividness of this “Fledermaus” performance was invigorating. It is easy, however, to imagine that, as the company relaxes into future performances, some of the shouting will be replaced by whispers, which could add a new dimension to the lusty production.
Die Fledermaus, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, February 22, 3 p.m. Opera New Jersey presents a concert-staged production with a live orchestra and chorus in English with English surtitles. $35 to $95. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.