Die Fledermaus adaptation delivers effervescent performance
The great comedienne Lucille Ball once said "I'm not funny. What I am is brave." It's an appropriate sentiment as Calgary-based Cowtown Opera Company kicks off its eighth season with an effervescent English-language adaptation of the beloved Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, simply known as The Bat.
The production not only celebrates the wealth of Calgary-area singing talent, but also of writing expertise. Earlier this year, Aaron Coates, Cowtown Opera's associate artistic director, collaborated with local tenor Steven Morton to write a new libretto and dialogue. The result? A storyline that appeals to contemporary Calgary with mentions of popular locales and well-known people. And why shouldn’t they? After all, Cowtown Opera’s mandate is to create an operatic experience that is relatable and accessible.
At its heart, The Bat stays consistent to the premise of Die Fledermaus. Falke is exacting revenge on Eisenstein after Eisenstein humiliated him previously, and everyone in their circle -- Eisenstein's wife, the Eisensteins' maid and even the prison warden -- are in on the conspiracy. However, Cowtown does take a few artistic liberties. The score is slashed, the character of Dr. Blind is eliminated, and the spoken part of Frosch becomes a Siri-like virtual assistant for an imaginative futuristic prison.
Like any comedy, the onus falls to the performers to deliver with timing, commitment, and a little bit of bravery. Staged in the new cSPACE theatre, a small, intimate space with limited reverberation, the company nevertheless shone with well-nuanced chemistry and fearlessness.
As the ringleader behind the conspiracy, baritone Ian Fundytus performs with a naturally comedic ease that allows him to anchor this cast. Fundytus' smooth, rich timbre never betrays his plan to set up Eisenstein and that makes the final reveal all the more convincing; he is clearly in his element in this role.
Soprano Anna Mendham offers a bubbly portrayal of the Eisensteins' maid Adele. Her soubrette timbre easily navigated the faster, higher passages that emulate laughter, and she shows her acting chops while she enjoys herself at the Orlofsky party. Her on-stage partner for much of the production, mezzo-soprano Dallas Hayes-Sparks, does not get as much exposure in The Bat, although she definitely makes the most of her reactions to Mendham's antics.
Mezzo-soprano Meaghan Schultz effectively portrays the Russian nouveau riche Orlofsky, at whose party the conspiracy against Eisenstein plays out. The affect Schultz creates with darker vowels and heavier L's is used well, although at times it seemed like the affect limited her ability to project. That said, her hilarious delivery of the mantra of "You do you", incorporated by Coates and Morton into the Champagne song at the end of Act II, elicited some of the strongest responses from the audience.
Baritone Aaron Bartholomew shows tremendous range both as an actor and singer in the role of Frank, the prison warden. When he arrives to take Eisenstein into custody, he plays the straight-man well, even showing a level of exasperation. But it is in his comedic delivery at both the party and the jail where Bartholomew appears most comfortable, allowing his sound to truly soar, especially in higher tessitura.
Tenor David Fertal lets it all hang out in a brave portrayal of the singer Alfred, who is intent on rekindling his relationship with Rose Eisenstein. Fertal's wardrobe consists of little more than boxers, a t-shirt and a dressing robe for most of the production, but he takes it all in stride. His vocal quality is bright and well suited to the intimate cSpace theatre, although when compared to the other tenor in the company, could use more richness and roundness.
As Eisenstein, tenor Matthew Bruce delivers an engaging and committed comedic performance. Bruce offered one of the truly hilarious acting performances, embodying Eisenstein's antics with facial expressions and physical movement that never seemed to be over-the-top or gratuitous. But it is his round, rich tone that pierced the theatre, flowing with life and vitality.
The standout performer of the evening, however, was soprano Laura Brandt as Eisenstein's wife, Rose. Brandt's spinning, confident voice pervaded this production from beginning to end with richness and depth. And in the tradition of a true leading lady, Brandt's chemistry with each of her castmates - from her husband to her ex-lover to her maid and beyond - is naturally seamless with each interaction. Hers was truly a tour-de-force performance.
Special mention should be made of pianist Evan Mounce, Cowtown Opera's Resident Music Director. Mounce had the unenviable task of slashing the Die Fledermaus score to only 90 minutes, and also playing the piano reduction for this four-show run. His efforts resulted in a charming production that still incorporates most of the recognizable musical themes that have made the Die Fledermaus score so cherished.
Special mention should also be made of the lighting and set design, which relied on a projector to set up the stage for each act. Of note, the dynamic waveform used for the voice of the Siri-like Frosch at the jail was nothing short of genius.
As its eighth season kicks off, Cowtown Opera has clearly come into its own as a company that celebrates local talent. Its brave, imaginative adaptations, coupled with an almost irreverent approach to staples of the operatic repertoire, give its productions a freshness and accessibility that deserve a well-deserved toast.
Cowtown Opera's production of The Bat (music by Johann Strauss, new lyrics by Steven Morton, new dialogue by Aaron Coates) concludes with a matinee performance on Sunday 30 September. Language and themes may not be suitable for all ages; discretion is advised.