Yes, I was at opening night….don’t ask!
The Madison Savoyards decided to celebrate their 55th season by departing from the tried and true Gilbert and Sullivan format and put the spotlight on a contemporary operetta from another country, the justly beloved Die Fledermaus of Johann Strauss II (seen above in the famous Stadtpark monument in Vienna, courtesy silwittman). A note from Peter Gascoyne in the program gave a fascinating history of an interesting link between G&S and Die Fledermaus, one that even allowed for dialogue taken from a Gilbert adaptation of the original play—that in its first version, opened three months before “The Bat.” Once again, we learn at least one new thing each day…
I did indeed attend the opening night performance on July 20, and here is my official apology for not being able to write and post a review before I left the country for eight days….more’s the pity, because seeing the Music Hall obviously less than full, I would have hoped to do what little I could in this space to sell a few more tickets for the remaining performances. I appreciate outgoing Madison Savoyards board president, J. Adam Shelton, for encouraging me to share my thoughts despite the late posting.
Shelton also made his directorial debut with this production, an operetta whose tunes and perhaps even plot are somewhat familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with operetta (with apologies to G&S diehards, many would rate “The Bat” as the most popular of all operettas in any language). The story concerns a long-overdue payback for a prank played years ago by Eisenstein on his friend, Dr. Falke. Eisenstein is about to serve a minor prison term of eight days, but Falke’s plot necessitates a delay in reporting to prison, and he enlists as accomplices Eisenstein’s wife, Rosalinda, her chambermaid, Adele, and the prison warden, Frank. It is during the Act II ball, given by the flamboyant Prince Orlofsky, in which most of the hijinks unfold—and the principal comment to make upon Shelton’s directing was that an infectious sense of fun, which never crossed the line to over-the-top, informed the proceedings.
But before the controlled silliness unfolded, we were treated to some splendid singing…no, first we had some sparkling playing from an orchestra led by Kyle Knox (with his wife, Naha Greenholtz, as concertmaster). Knox is no stranger to the Savoyards podium, as well as a number of other groups in town; it is particularly pleasing to report that his career is clearly on the ascent, as he has been recently named music director of WYSO and associate conductor of the Madison Symphony. From the opening of Fledermaus, Knox delivered the stylistic panache we have come to expect from him, as well as growing his pick-up orchestra into a whole that probably exceeded to some degree the sum of its parts.
And then we heard three strong, confident voices right off the bat: Erin K. Bryan as Rosalinda, Michelle Buck as Adele and Tim Rebers as Eisenstein. It was hard to believe that just ten days prior I had heard Bryan in spot-on early Baroque repertoire with the Madison Early Music Festival; her versatility bodes well for her growing career. Buck was new to me, and especially in Act II demonstrated ample range, power, and most importantly, expressiveness to make us hope to hear again soon in other repertoire. Rebers may not have as much opportunity as the ladies to show off sheer vocalism, but was well cast, as was Benjamin Swanson as the eventual “bat,” Dr. Falke.
Shelton mentioned in a program note that the story is updated to 2021, but this auditor wouldn’t have thought so if it hadn’t been in print. The majority of the costumes (courtesy of Rebecca Stanley), seemed not so alien to old Vienna; they had style and sensibility (only the ripped-jeans look of Falke seemed out of place). But the menagerie theme of the ball brought out Stanley’s real creative juices, and the visuals of the entire act kept a smile curled upon one’s face, regardless of what else was being sung, spoken or acted.
One of the traditions of Fledermaus is to incorporate references local to where the work is being seen (this production had lots of fun asides to locale and foods beloved to all Badgers in the state). Another tradition is that the work is often performed on New Year’s Eve/Day, with special cameos and inserted musical numbers as part of the festivities in Act II. The Savoyards opted for a slightly different and welcome tack, the inclusion of the Central Midwest Ballet. The four dancers fit nicely into the scheme of things.
Kirsten Larson took the traditional trousers role of Prince Orlofsky, and at times reminded one of a Greta Garbo impression; except that of course, she doesn’t “vant to be alone,” but surrounded by anything and anyone that will distract from her serious case of ennui. It’s a tricky role to pull off, and most of the time Larson stopped short of an over-the-top approach.
In the end, it was a frothy evening, musically speaking. I had never managed to see a live Fledermaus, and it was nice to have a break from Gilbert and Sullivan. But after all, G&S is really what the Savoyards are all about, and we look forward eagerly to next season’s return to those Victorian masters.