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Johann Strauss’ ‘batty’ operetta fits comfortably into the Lamplighters style

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This weekend in the Lam Research Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Lamplighters Music Theater is in the final stage of its run of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II (whose name, sadly, only appears in the “Synopsis” portion of the program book). Performed in a new English translation by David Scott Marley, the operetta is billed with the subtitle The Bat Bites Back, a clever alliterative departure from the usual subtitle, The Bat’s Revenge. Lamplighters is best known for their skillful command of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. This production raises an obvious question: How does an ensemble whose comfort zone is Victorian England mange when moved to fin de siècle Vienna?

The answer is simple enough: Very well indeed. For those who know a thing or two about W. S. Gilbert, this will not be surprising. The original source for Strauss’ operetta was a French farce (Le réveillon, perhaps best translated as “a wild night,” by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy); and Gilbert had written an English play based on that farce (which predates Die Fledermaus). One may thus say that Strauss’ operetta descends from the same “topsy-turvy” source that inspired Gilbert.

Indeed, when Charles Ludlam was invited to stage Fledermaus for the Santa Fe Opera, he, too, used an English language libretto; but he created his text by adapting Gilbert’s play, rather than using Strauss’ libretto (by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée) as a point of departure for translation. While I saw Ludlam’s staging in the summer of 1986, I cannot say that I remember enough about the text to know if Marley was also inspired by it. Whether or not he was, there is no doubting that the operetta works very well when performed in the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Since the Lamplighters production is double-cast, it would be unfair to dwell too much on individual soloists. What is most important is that all the vocalists had a solid command of both diction and rhetorical style to endow Marley’s text with all of its witty virtues. Those qualities were then reinforced by Barbara Heroux’ approach to staging, in which even the minor roles got to play up specific comic details. (Comedy is always all about the details.) There was even some “party music” in the second act with a clever choreographic interpretation of Strauss’ “Thunder and Lightning” polka that was excellently fashioned to the skills of the performers.

Musically, Assistant Music Director Maya Barsacq had to fill in for George Cleve, who was still recovering from a bout with the flu. From the opening measures of the overture, any listener familiar with the score knew that (s)he would be in good hands. I particularly liked the way in which Barsacq handled instrumental balance to make Eisenstein’s departure in the first act sound as if he was being accompanied by a Viennese marching band. Most importantly, the entire score frothed with the evanescence of champagne bubble, a metaphor so fundamental to this operetta that it is even honored explicitly in the libretto.

Lamplighters has made a solid case that Fledermaus belongs in their repertoire; let’s hope that they decide to revisit this production in a future season.

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