Whether viewed as innocuous fun or lightheartedness run amok, Johann Strauss II's operetta Die Fledermaus and its infectiously tuneful score have become, for modern audiences, an infamous vehicle for all manner of opera-company celebratory occasions such as galas and New Year's Eve performances. Numerous notable English translations of the work have added to the tradition by taking substantial license with the original, inserting anachronisms, topical and local references, and audience in-jokes. The arrival of surprise celebrity guests in the Act II party scene—often offering up unexpected tributes—has become a tradition, too.
In that way, Knoxville Opera's production of Die Fledermaus last weekend was no different than many others. The surprise (but no surprise) party guests included Mayor Madeline Rogero, former University of Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors and his wife Mary Lynn, Hallerin Hill, Anita Lane, Knoxville Museum of Art executive director David Butler, Liza Zenni, and Andrew Wentzel. A tribute was made to Mary Costa, the voice of Princess Aurora from Disney's Sleeping Beauty, via an interpolated verse of the "Sleeping Beauty Waltz." Knoxville country music singer Logan Murrell sang a verse of "The Tennessee Waltz," backing herself on guitar.
But what marked this production before and after the celebratory interlude were some wonderful comic theatrical performances. Unfortunately, there was very little in the way of vocal excitement from the singers. Following an amazingly crisp and genuinely stirring up-tempo performance of the overture by Brian Salesky and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the premise setup of Act I saw some bright and lively comedy from Kevin Anderson as Alfred, Rosalinda's former lover, and Donata Cucinotta as Adele, Rosalinda's maid. The vocal highlight of the evening by far came from baritone Sean Anderson, singing the role of Eisenstein, Rosalinda's husband. But the theatrical strength of these three performers pushed the character of Rosalinda herself, performed largely ineffectively by Julia Lima, to a rear burner.
In operetta fashion, the first of the three acts, taking place in the 1890s Vienna home of the Eisensteins, introduces the characters and provides expository comedy. While stage director Brian Deedrick provided fluid movement in the living room set and some inventively funny moments of dramatic entrances and exits, this Act I set was inexplicably overlit, sucking much of the comedic energy out of the scene. Acts II and III fared much better in this regard.
Act II takes place at the palace of Prince Orlofsky (a trouser role, performed by Amanda Crider) and is all about intoxicating beverages, disguises, and mistaken identities. Eisenstein has delayed starting a week's jail sentence to attend the party contrived by his friend, Dr. Falke (Daniel Scofield), supposedly without his wife's knowledge. Of course, both Adele and Rosalinda are there in masks and sumptuous gowns. Eisenstein meets his disguised wife and, in the ensuing flirtation, loses his pocket watch to her, which she intends to use as evidence of his infidelity. The idea of the watch is an important symbol, but despite grand efforts otherwise, turned out to be somewhat confusing stage business.
John Forrest Ferguson, taking the non-singing role of Frosch, the drunken jailer of Act III, was, without doubt, the strongest comedic performer of the evening and a real breath fresh air. From physical comedy to unrelenting topical wittiness, Ferguson was everything one could want in the role. (I could have done without the orange flag and the UT football reference, though.)
Salesky and the orchestra were tight and solid throughout the evening, luxuriating in the sparkle and sumptuousness of the Strauss score. While the production definitely left one wishing for a stronger cast of singers, there was enough bubbly energy present to send the audience onto the sidewalk humming the waltz tunes—and, perhaps, craving a well-deserved glass of champagne.