An inert black bundle on an open, empty stage is the first thing that greeted the arriving audience at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater for a performance of Die Fledermaus. Gradually, the bundle shifted and a human form became perceptible.
The eponymous “bat” finally rises to his feet and exits as the familiar overture strikes up. We later learn the bat was Dr. Falke wrapped in a black cape, drunk and passed out on a park bench following excessive reveling with his pals. Dr. Falke spends the rest of the production getting even with his pals for abandoning him.
This dramatic opening is a foretaste of the quality creative direction awaiting you at this well-played and beautifully sung operetta by Johann Strauss II, which opened Saturday night and continues Sunday, Monday and Tuesday
The cast was made up primarily of graduate students from New England Conservatory; the performances testifying to NEC high state of opera studies. (There will be some rotation of roles in subsequent performances.)
Saturday’s version was remarkable both for the singing and the acting. Soyoung Park as the chambermaid Adele first captured the audience with her comedic turns then unexpectedly her powerful soprano, steady and assured even in the highest register. Suzanne Grogan as Rosalinda, the lead soprano, also delivered impeccable solos and perfectly enunciated speaking parts. The role of her husband Eisenstein was played with relish by another powerful voice, baritone Junhan Choi.
The cast seemed to be having as much fun as the audience despite an absurdist story line better suited to the Viennese public of 1874 for which it was written. The Majestic audience seemed happy to suspend disbelief, however, and large-screen scrolling of the libretto kept the story’s twists and turns from getting lost in the narrative chaos.
This version of the libretto—and there have been dozens over the years—is credited to Ruth and Thomas Martin. Rhymes and rhythms were cleverly wrought in English although inexplicably popped onto the screen as ordinary prose.
Strauss’s original librettists, Karl Haffner and Richard Genée credited their main source as a French production, Le réveillon, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, both of whom also worked with Georges Bizet on Carmen.
The story is more than a mere 19th century farce. Typical of the genre, it satirizes the Austrian aristocracy and allows the servant class to achieve equality at a costume ball, carefully organized to puncture various pretensions. Salted into the libretto is a Russian aristocrat, Orlovsky, played with panache by NEC master’s degree candidate Gillian Cotter who struts around protected by three grim Cossacks.
The pleasing mix of solo, chorus, speech and broad acting was carried off without a glitch by this cast, and put me in mind of the best of Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan, all of whom worked this vein at roughly he same time as Strauss, and openly borrowed from each other.
The Majestic performance was held to a high standard by professionals behind the scenes. The stage direction of Joshua Major, a veteran of 27 years of opera direction in the United States and Canada, kept this unruly story reined in but not too severely. Stephen Lord, also music director of the St. Louis Opera Theater, was in the pit with the New England Conservatory Orchestra, and brought out the full joy of Strauss’s melodic score.
Jon Savage’s economical, curtainless stage design brought appreciative titters from the audience as scenery descended and slipped into place.
Costumes by Catherine Stebbens gave the production a subtle range of lovely pastel gowns. Lighting designer Christopher Ostrom, an experienced professional with several NEC credits, produced scenes ranging from brilliant illumination to effective silhouette effects. Melinda Sullivan of the NEC faculty brought graceful Strauss waltzing to the ball scenes.
The show offers a rare opportunity to enjoy professional level operetta at reasonable prices. Saturday’s performance was virtually sold out, with many seats occupied by young fans.