A Star is Born in New Fledermaus

United StatesUnited States Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus: Soloists, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Thomas Rösner (conductor), Houston, Texas. 25.10.2013.

Cast of "Die Fledermaus" (Photo: Felix Sanchez)
Cast of “Die Fledermaus” (Photo: Felix Sanchez)

Eisenstein: Liam Bonner
Rosalinde: Wendy Bryn Harmer
Adele: Laura Claycomb
Alfredo: Anthony Dean Griffey
Dr. Falke: Samuel Schultz
Prince Orlovsky: Susan Graham
Frank: Michael Sumuel
Blind: Reginald Smith Jr.
Ida: Uliana Alexyuk

Director: Lindy Hume
Sets: Richard Roberts
Costume designer: Angus Strathie
Lighting designer: Michael James Clark

You’d be hard-pressed to find any opera company in the country consistently producing more top quality singers from its young artist program than Houston Grand Opera. From Denyce Graves, Susanne Mentzer, Eric Owens and Joyce DiDonato to Tamara Wilson and Jamie Barton, there seems to be a proverbial conga line of top talent emerging from HGO’s Opera Studio. In the company’s new English-language production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, a baritone of the new generation of HGO studio graduates takes center stage in a mostly enjoyable if not slightly quirky updated staging.

Fortunately for HGO, its Studio graduates don’t forget where they started, returning often to take on principal roles on the company’s main stage. On occasion, they even outshine the “star” colleagues with whom they appear at the Wortham. Studio alumnus Liam Bonner as Eisenstein carried that torch this time around, as the baritone upstaged the stars around him and further cemented the excitement growing around his young career. A fine actor with excellent comedic timing, Bonner’s contagious charisma lit up all his scenes; his singing, however, proved even more impressive. Throughout the evening, the baritone sang with ease and clarity, showing off a voice nearly twice the size of any other singer on stage. Bonner’s instrument showed no signs of strain while navigating Eisenstein’s notoriously demanding higher tessitura, the squillo in his upper range piercing through the entire house. (As Bonner casually tossed about G’s and A’s, I thought more than once that he would make a fine dramatic tenor; he’s definitely got the range and the power up top.)  Houston would be wise to bring Bonner back as often as possible.

Alongside Bonner was a cast that was strong on paper, if perhaps a little underwhelming in practice, as some peculiar choices gave a couple of big names the chance to show a side not often seen in their normal repertoire. Anthony Dean Griffey, as such, seemed to relish escaping the Peter Grimes mold, playing a lascivious Alfredo, though occasionally weakening in his upper range. Susan Graham also let loose in the low-pressure role of Orlovsky, singing with style and sufficient ham without overdoing it. You would be forgiven for thinking that Griffey as Alfredo and Graham as Orlovsky seem a bit like underused resources; in the end, though, it worked. Seeing the stars out of the limelight and simply enjoying being part of this production contributed to the party atmosphere.

Laura Claycomb nailed Adele’s third-act aria and managed to portray successfully the exaggerated Texan country girl without too much camp. As Falke, baritone Samuel Schultz paled in comparison to Bonner but sang with legato and finesse, despite having a voice perhaps a shade too small for the Wortham. Wendy Bryn Harmer seemed the least comfortable among her colleagues during the dialogues, but made up for it with her elegant singing. Another HGO Studio member, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, deserves an honorable mention for his excellent Frank.

Director Lindy Hume moved the action of this Fledermaus to New York in the 1930s, employing David Pountney’s well-traveled English language translation during the musical numbers but adapting her own dialogues. The result was a bit of a mixed bag. While the sets are no doubt easy on the eyes, the (amplified) dialogues lacked direction, combining pop culture trivia, 1930s slang, ostensibly irrelevant Vienna references, and a litany of Texas jokes that garnered no laughs after the first act. You wouldn’t go to this Fledermaus for the genius of the production; fortunately, however, the musical qualities on display relegated the weaknesses of the staging to a minor quibble.

The most Viennese thing about this Fledermaus turned out in the end to be Vienna-born conductor Thomas Rösner, who in his house debut led a lively HGO Orchestra that on more than one occasion joined in on the fun with their own musical hijinks.

Whether or not operagoers were crying out for a Fledermaus replete with smoking jackets, Cole Porter and Fred Astaire, they will always be up for hearing the best upcoming talent whenever they can. In this lively and mostly entertaining production, Houston Grand Opera patrons have a chance to see one of the brightest young stars the company has produced in recent years in Liam Bonner, and of that the company can be proud.

Aaron Smith

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