TAMPA —Since its opening in 1874 in Vienna, Die Fledermaus has never looked back. The operetta by Johann Strauss II remains one of the world's most popular, in part because it doesn't ask too much of its audiences. Light and bubbly as the champagne it celebrates over three acts, it raises a glass to partying itself, and gives infidelity and hangovers a wink and a nod.
Opera Tampa began its 24th season with the show Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Borrowed from a French adaptation of a German vaudeville play, Die Fledermaus ("the bat") follows a New Year's Eve prank between aristocrat buddies gone a little too far. The show's enthusiastic reception led to an English translation by the late 19th century, a relaxing touch for American audiences. Under thorough stage direction by James Marvel, English supertitles are still displayed for all songs.
The carefree vibe comes with a slight drawback. In addition to the lack of complication — of stakes, because no character faces a threat worse than a night in jail or a divorce — the operetta contains no real buildup over three acts, either musically or dramatically. It opens with a marvelous tenor (Cody Austin as Alfred) serenading from offstage as a chambermaid overhears. Gigantic Rubenesque paintings and the distressed gold trim around towering doors reflect aging grandeur.
Soon Rosalinde, the matron of the house and object of Alfred's affections, appears. She's an old flame of Alfred's and not averse to him, except she's married. The tone is set from a recitative ("Oh, I must not go to you") between Adele and Rosalinde, played by soprano Rochelle Bard. Die Fledermaus depends on brilliant performances to pull it off, and gets them from Bard and soprano Cree Carrico as Adele. More on that shortly.
In the meantime the husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein (Gabriel Preisser), has returned from jail for insulting a civil servant, his incompetent lawyer (tenor Mark Lubas as Dr. Blind) in tow. This production comes loaded with gags, contemporary allusions and even a few improvisations, some with a long history and others adopted for this show. References include shoutouts to Weeki Wachee and Ibuprofen, pizza and Chevrolet, the last one as Eisenstein pretends to a French nobleman at a lavish party that takes up the second act. All can obviously sing, and Preisser has a likeable comic touch that served him well as Figaro last year. So can the host, Sarah Nordin as the Russian Prince Orlofsky, a role always played by a woman or a countertenor.
Bass-baritone Lawson Anderson performs admirably as Eisenstein's buddy, Dr. Falke, and the two combine richly in an early duet as Falke urges his friend to attend the party. A string of farcical elements make up the plot twists to follow. We learn, for example, that the entire party is a set-up for Falke to get revenge on Eisenstein for letting him sleep off a drunken aftermath of another party on a park bench, trudging home still wearing a bat costume. Chiefly, he will expose his buddy's wandering eye, made possible by enticing him to flirt with a disguised "Hungarian countess" who turns out to be Rosalinde.
Lighting by Jimmy Lawlor paints a lavish scene at the party, showering a ballroom and paintings of cavorting nudes in lavender and champagne bubbles, a statement of ongoing celebration justified by Strauss' exquisite waltzes. Party goers dawdled for 30 seconds or so at the top of the act due to a late entrance by Carrico, but she more than made up for it in Adele's aria of ambition and lust. A member of Actors' Equity, Carrico gave the most complete comic performance I have ever seen in an opera — the total package. Ditto Bard's job as Rosalinde, a role enhanced by her own acting chops and a sweetness at the top of her range.
Past productions have flirted with contemporary comedians sometimes playing the non-singing role of Frosch, the drunken jailer in the third act. Opera Tampa went with Jonelle Meyer, and could not have found a more committed physical actor who specializes in farce. The entire company emerges at the end as ruses are exposed and all betrayals forgiven. The show overall spared nothing, even bringing out 16 young female dancers in the party scene, a send up of ballet or Russian nesting dolls or the Rockettes, maybe all of the above. And with that effort came laughter and some inimitable Viennese dance music.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.