The set-up: If Houston Grand Opera's sparkling production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") isn't the finest vintage grand cru champagne, it is nonetheless from a very good year. It looks great in the glass, the bubbles tickle your nose, and by the end you will be pleasantly intoxicated.
The execution: Although re-set to 1930s Manhattan, via a fantasy Art Deco Hollywood, Strauss's eternally fresh operetta remains firmly planted in its true home, fin-de-siècle Vienna (1874), during the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where splendid dance halls could accommodate thousands of patrons who waltzed the nighttime away and pretended that Vienna was still the center of the universe.
Although the great society balls that made Vienna the envy of the world had stalled after the economic "great crash" in 1873, there were still plenty of public dance halls where pleasure could be had. The king of dance bands was Herr Strauss the younger, who earlier had formed his own orchestra in competition with his illustrious father, a revered composer who had conquered Europe with his polonaises, polkas, and, of course, waltzes. Their rivalry was intense, but when dad died, soon after he had written the famous "Radetsky March," son Johann II combined both orchestras and continued to conquer not only Europe, but Russia and America with his haunting songs. Perhaps the most financially secure composer of the era, certainly the man whose melodies were most played, Strauss II was revered not only by the public, but by his famous contemporaries. When titans Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner sang his praises and wished they had written "The Blue Danube," the son had risen.
Melody poured out of him, hundreds of dances. French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach (Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène), whose satiric pieces had triumphed internationally, suggested to his friend that he turn his felicitous hand to the theater. Strauss balked, but his wife urged him on, and soon a second, successful career opened up. At first, Strauss didn't concern himself with the librettos, often composing the songs without knowing exactly where they were to fit in the story until he saw the dress rehearsal. But with Fledermaus, he got a really lively script by Haffner and Genée, based on a French comedy by the team who was soon to write Carmen for Bizet. Strauss's musical genius went into overdrive.
Marital fidelity gets a bashing in this bracing tale. Although husband Eisenstein must serve a five-day prison sentence, he receives an invitation to Prince Orlovsky's swanky masked ball. He's all too anxious to get there to meet the girls, so he lies to his wife: he'll go to the party first, then go to jail. Meanwhile, wife Rosalinde has been besieged by former lover Alfredo, a singer (who arrives on a window washer's scaffold), and is about to relent when she, too, receives an invite and a costume. Her sassy maid Adele gets asked also, and she lies about a dying grandmother to get out of work and attend the party. Everyone's on the make. All this is an elaborate ruse set up by Eisenstein's friend Falke, who's out for comic revenge for a prank Eisenstein pulled on him at a previous party. Adultery and champagne - what a combo, how Viennese.
The A-list cast is first-rate, getting into the giddy mood with soaring abandon. Former HGO Studio alum, baritone Liam Bonner is a standout as Eisenstein. Not only does this tall, handsome singer look terrific in tuxedo or dressing gown, but his sonorous, resonant voice fills the Brown Theater with impeccable diction. Those annoying, incessantly rhyming English lyrics by David Pountnet and Leonard Hancock, adapted by director Lindy Hume, sound positively Noël Coward-esque when phrased with his sure-fire stage presence and technique. He has the physical sense of comedy like Cary Grant - watch how he forces unconscious lawyer Blind into a closet, using his feet to open the door and then retrieve a desk chair to prop against it, all while maneuvering the big guy on his back. Bonner is on his way to the operatic big leagues.
An Eisenstein with the looks and moves of Cary Grant needs a co-star like Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur. While not quite in this cinematic league, soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer is game, with a radiant, silvery voice that sails over Strauss's orchestration and matches Bonner's in precise diction. (No need for surtitles when these two sing.) Her best number - with the cleverest lyrics - is when she impersonates a Hungarian countess at Orlovsky's party and is asked to sing one of those sweet, homeland songs, the "Czárdás" ("Sounds from home"). She makes it up as she goes along, confusing Bucharest with Budapest, that sort of thing. It's very funny and she sings it beautifully.
International coloratura soprano, Texas native and HGO favorite, Laura Claycomb, chews up the impressive scenery as parlor maid Adele with winking glee, playing the antic second-banana role with scene-stealing trickery. She fills Adele's famous "Laughing Song" with brilliance and patented style. Meanwhile, the international mezzo Susan Graham, another HGO favorite, plays it cool and manly in her pant's role as Orlovsky. Her thick, creamy voice, like the best crème brǔlée imaginable, envelopes her signature "Cancun a son gout" ("Each to his own taste") with that dusky tone that is one of opera's natural wonders. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, perhaps the preeminent interpreter of Benjamin Britten's tormented Peter Grimes, shows a very sprightly side as randy Alfredo. Delightfully silly, he boogies with sexual tension, wrapping a leg around Rosamond as he pins her to the sofa. Check out our interview with mezzo soprano Susan Graham.
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Supporting roles are ably sung - and acted - by baritone Samuel Schultz as an extremely soigné Dr. Falke; baritone Reginald Smith, as incompetent lawyer Blind; baritone Michael Sumuel, as giddy Superintend Frank; soprano Uliana Alexyuk as Adele's scheming sister Ida; and Jason Graae, in the non-singing roles of bellhop, head waiter, and scene-stealing, ad-libbing Frosch in the jail scene of Act III.
The production pays loving tribute to those immortal Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers RKO musicals with their Art Deco big white sets and sweeping geometric designs. Designer Richard Roberts and Academy Award-winning costumer Angus Strathie are invited back to HGO any time they wish. Even Fred and Ginger make a surprise guest appearance at the party in a silky, if not accurate, rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," performed by former Houston Ballet principals Phillip Broomhead and Krissy Richmond. Choreographer Daniel Pelzig gets the essence of it, but Astaire never lifted his partners,certainly not like anything resembling these "Dancing with the Stars" acrobatic moves.
As usual, HGO's chorus sounds lilting throughout, and maestro Thomas Rösner dances through Strauss's glittering score.
The verdict: The Viennese didn't warm to Fledermaus at its world premiere until after the operetta wowed Berlin a year later. The economic crisis was over, and the Austrians were eager to forget their troubles and dance the night away. This operetta, which glistens under HGO's '30s caress, waltzes right into the heart. Heady and potent, Strauss's stage masterpiece leaves one contented and slightly woozy, smiling all the while. Johann Strauss II's evergreen operetta beguiles anew at Houston Grand Opera, October 27 (matinee), November 2, 8, and 10 (matinee). Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $20-$357.50