By Johann Strauss Jr.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Directed by E. Loren Meeker

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The San Francisco Opera production of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr. gets rather silly at times with E. Loren Meeker's stage direction, but then it is a rather giddy work, as exemplified by the frothy Champagne Song at the heart of the big party scene in Act 2. It's also a work with buoyant music, especially under the baton of SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles, who conducts the fine orchestra with a light touch. The music also benefits from a well chosen cast of singers who also move and act well.

The libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée is based on an elaborate practical joke intended by Dr. Falke (baritone Brian Leerhuber) as revenge for another joke played on him several years earlier by his friend Gabriel von Eisenstein (baritone Wolfgang Brendel). Most of the principals assume another identity as they attend an elaborate masked ball hosted by Prince Orlofsky (countertenor Gerald Thompson), a rich young Russian. Dr. Falke intends to reveal the extent of Eisenstein's roving eye by having Eisenstein's wife, Rosalinde (soprano Christine Goerke) attend the ball incognito. In the meantime, she has been fending off the advances of an admirer, Alfred (tenor Vale Rideout). The Eisensteins' chambermaid, Adele (soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge), also finds her way to the ball along with her sister, Ida (soprano Melody Moore). All ends well, of course. The three women all are fine singers both in their solos and ensembles. Welch-Babidge is a sparkling coloratura with a flair for comedy. The men also acquit themselves well. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu not only has a rich baritone as Frank, the jailer, but also displays his athletic ability -- something one doesn't usually associate with opera singers -- in the Act 3 jail scene. Brancoveanu and Moore are both Adler Fellows, the highest level of the San Francisco Opera's training programs, as is Thompson, the promising young countertenor. Orlofsky is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano as a trousers role, but countertenors sometimes perform it, as Brian Asawa did in 1996.

Jason Graae appears in the nonsinging role of Frosch, the drunken jailer. Although he is an adept physical comedian, some of his schtick grows tiresome. Four ballet dancers appear in Act 2. Choreographed by Peggy Hickey, two of them -- Peter Brandenhoff and Cynthia Drayer -- are featured in a pas de deux. The Opera Chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, also shines in Act 2 and has a chance to appear in the colorful costumes designed by Thierry Bosquet

Originally designed by Wolfram Skalicki and Lotfi Mansouri, SFO's former general director, this production was first seen in 1990. Sung in English, it uses an accessible translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin. The handsome sets are by Skalicki, the lighting by Marie Barrett.

Die Fledermaus was the second entry in the company's opening weekend. Opening night featured Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. The opening weekend also marked the first productions in the tenure of David Gockley, the company's new general director. Gockley was heard giving what has now become a standard reminder to turn off cell phones, pagers, etc. before the curtain rose. The reminder was repeated by a woman at the start of Acts 2 and 3 -- an indication of how ubiquitous and annoying those electronic devices have become. However, the reminders seemed to work, allowing the audience to enjoy Strauss' lilting melodies.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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17 Sep 2006