Who knew these UK Opera kids were so funny?
The last few years, they haven’t had much of a chance to show it. They’ve been dealing with subjects like slavery (River of Time), murder (Lucia di Lammermoor), pretty young things dying of loathsome diseases (La Boheme and River of Time) and childhood abandonment issues (Hansel and Gretel).
Oh, where’s an operetta with a ridiculous little plot when you need one?
That’s what the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre is offering up through Saturday with its production of Joahann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, a show as silly as its title sounds.
This may sound like an easy assignment, but ask anyone who’s tried to make an audience laugh and they’ll tell you, comedy is tough. Die Fledermaus needs the laughs, because without them, the show is nearly three-hours of memorable melodies strung together by the thinnest of plots.
Three residents of a house, Eisentein and Rosalinda and their maid, Adele, are invited to the same party, but they each think they are sneaking out on the others. It’s all part of an elaborate prank by Dr. Falke to get back at Eisenstein for a humiliation in the past. This is one of those plots popular in opera and Shakespeare that depends on intimate acquaintances suddenly not being able to recognize each other in close proximity.
You need to be laughing to maintain your suspension of disbelief.
Fortunately, we discovered Thursday night that the ranks of UK Opera include several gifted comic singer-actors.
We had an inkling of this with soprano Amanda Balltrip, who sings Rosalinda, from her turn as Musetta in the Fall 2008 production of Boheme. This show is where her comedic skills are fully realized, maxing out a drama queen persona in Act I and then, disguised as a Hungarian countess at the party in Act II, ably mixing comic asides and perfectly executed high notes in a song about her supposed homeland.
Like we said, there had been an inkling this existed in Balltrip. As for Nicholas Provenzale and Reginald Smith Jr., we had no idea. As Eisenstein, Provenzale had the elegant wit of a Cary Grant, and Smith’s gregarious Falke seemed to relish his role as ringmaster of this charade.
Dione Johnson, who we first saw last fall as a slave in the world premier of the Lincoln opera River of Time got things started right as Adele, mischievously plotting to go to the party. Later in the show, Daniel Koehn showed considerable talent for physical comedy as Frank, the warden, particularly in his scenes with veteran stage actor Michael Friedman as jailer Frosch.
Director Richard Kagey and conductor John Nardolillo combine to keep the show going at a good clip and the singers on the beat.
The second act party scene has traditionally been a place for surprise guests and UK Opera’s production delivered. Seated at tables on stage Thursday night were former Lexington mayor Pam Miller, WKYT news anchor Barbara Bailey and other guests.
And the opening night lineup of guest singers included UK alum and current resident artist Gregory Turay, soprano Catherine Clarke Nardolillo, and UK alum and current voice professor Angelique Clay.
The biggest party treat was new UK voice professor Cynthia Lawrence’s rendition of Un bel di, the tragic aria from Madama Butterfly. Yes, a lot has happened on the Lexington Opera House stage in 123 years. But if Lawrenece’s note-perfect, fully formed performance of Butterfly’s delusional masterpiece wasn’t the best ever performance of an aria on that stage, it had to be somewhere near the top of the list.
And that UK can attract faculty like Lawrence and put on a production like this Fledermaus is a testament to the growth of this program. The last time UK Opera staged Fledermaus was1998, and it was a good production, a solid building block of the program.
But the depth of the cast and overall quality of this version versus 1998 production show the difference between a program on the rise and one that — at a certain level — has a arrived.
Note: This opera is double cast. The cast reviewed performs again at 2 p.m. Saturday. The other cast, led by Jason N. Brown as Eisenstein and Julie LaDouceur as Rosalinda, performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. As always, we’d love to hear comments from people who see the other cast.