My enjoyment of Die Fledermaus, presented by Opera @ Augustana and Genesius Guild, started with the first notes heard by the orchestra playing Johann Strauss' operetta. The beauty of this ensemble's seemingly flawless performance caused my spirit to swell with delight, and added to the experience of sitting in Lincoln Park's outdoor theatre, watching the stars appear and listening to the sounds of nature. Due to the mixture of the open-air atmosphere and the richness of Strauss' splendidly well-performed composition, I was overwhelmed during Saturday's performance with a sense of art and culture - and all this before a single note was sung.
While an orchestral performance, particularly by this particular group, could've been enough to satisfy my evening's entertainment desires, the singing further delighted. Performed in English, Strauss' production is easy to understand, which is a significant plus, and alleviated one of my biggest concerns about undertaking my first review of an opera. It further helps that the story - which finds Dr. Falke (Sean Lynch) exacting his revenge on Eisenstein (Steven Jepson) for a prank involving a bat costume ("die fledermaus" means "bat" in German) - is funny. Also, rather than being completely sung, this farce features scenes of dialogue in between the arias, as is typical of an operetta.
The humor starts almost immediately following the exquisite overture. James Thompson's full, rich voice is heard off-stage as his Alfred, full of bravado, attempts to woo Rosalinda (Angela Hand), Eisenstein's wife. After Alfred bursts through the window onto scenic designer Andy Gutshall's grand set with large, arched, red-curtained windows and period furniture, he remarks how his remarkable voice is wasted on an empty room, and then exits. Thus begins a story involving an elaborate and hilarious scheme to embarrass Eisenstein prior to his eight-day jail term for insulting an official. Dr. Falke convinces Eisenstein to delay his surrender in order to attend a party under a false name, and also, separately, convinces Rosalinda and her chambermaid Adele (Michelle Crouch) to go to the party in disguise. This prank consequently involves mistaken identities and discovered infidelities, all humorously rendered through director John Pfautz's staging.
Of particular comic pleasure is Crouch, who employs wide, animated eyes and exaggerated movements in her Adele to great comedic effect, eliciting many a laugh for her silly ways. Kai Swanson is comedically similar, though his loose-limbed humor is inspired by his character Frosch's amusingly ridiculous drunkenness while on the job at the jailhouse. In contrast, Lynch seems fully in control of both his faculties and the proceedings with Dr. Falke's dashing, confident air and dulcet tones. And Jepson, who also sings wonderfully, manages to come across as suave and slightly off-kilter at the same time, as if Eisenstein thinks he's got swagger, but can't quite pull it off.
Dr. Falke's prank is the thrust of the plot, but the operetta relies on wordplay, self-deprecation, and innuendo for its laughs. When Hand isn't opening her mouth to unleash her impressive singing voice, she's using it to deliver quips about tenors with bravado, or to question her husband's choice of tuxedo to wear for his jail term. The dialogue is also peppered with disdain for the operetta itself, with invitations for the audience to leave if they don't like it, and notes that we should share with Strauss on how to better write an opera.
There are also some additional surprises in the production. Jonathan Schrader seems more in his element than I've ever seen him, even more so than during his notable turn as the king in Countryside Community Theatre's 2012 production of The King & I; he's sincerely comfortable vocally and physically in his portrayal. The host of the party that's the scene of Dr. Falke's prank, meanwhile, is Prince Orlofsky, a male role played with poise and clear tones by soprano Linsy DePooter.
While the three-hour performance did feel a bit long to me, I still enjoyed Opera @ Augustana's and Genesius Guild's presentation of Strauss' Die Fledermaus for the impressive orchestral performance, the beautiful voices, the titillating humor, and, as per usual, designer Ellen Dixon's exquisite costuming. In truth, I'm ashamed for not having taken in previous Opera @ Augustana productions - a mistake I will not make for subsequent performances.
Die Fledermaus runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue and 38th Street, Rock Island) through June 22, donations to the free performance are encouraged, and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.