Lost in translation: Seattle Opera's 'Fledermaus' slightly overdoes the updating but hugely entertains

One does not need a background in opera to appreciate the enduring charm of "Die Fledermaus." There is but one prerequisite: the genuine desire to have a rollicking good time.

Seattle Opera's current production of Johann Strauss' classic operetta is as accessible as it is lighthearted and fun. Perhaps a little too accessible. Its attempts to connect with a modern, American audience occasionally stumble into the realm of unnecessary anachronism, creating a sense of labored, interpretive cleverness that doesn't quite mesh with the inherent wit of the source material.

The plot revolves around an elaborate scheme of good-natured revenge set in late-19th-century Viennese high society. After being humiliated at a costume ball by his friend, Gabriel von Eisenstein, Dr. Falke resolves to get even by putting his friend's marriage to the ultimate test. On the eve of Eisenstein's brief incarceration for a petty civil crime, Falke convinces him to enjoy his last hours of freedom by attending an extravagant party held by Orlofsky, a Russian prince renowned for his immense wealth and hedonistic appetites. At the party, Eisentein flirts with an enigmatic Hungarian countess who is in fact his own wife, Rosalinde, in disguise. Marital chaos ensues, but is later neatly resolved once the scheme is revealed.

Instead of the original German, the Seattle Opera production has opted to translate the script and lyrics into English. There are obvious benefits to this decision. Unlike most operas, operettas are almost as dependent on spoken dialog as they are on song, and the fact that the actors are speaking in the native language of the audience makes the action on stage that much more accessible. However, despite the considerable vocal talents of the cast, the English lyrics feel vaguely out of place whenever the characters break into song - an annoyance that's compounded by the redundant decision to project English captions on the screen above the stage.

Another problem resulting from translation is the unnecessary use of modern phrases and current American pop culture in the dialog. At random moments throughout the course of the three acts, the characters mention the failed Seattle Monorail Project, the 520 floating bridge and the TV show "Desperate Housewives." In an otherwise light and fluid production, these anachronistic moments constitute moments of dead weight. They by no means detract from the strength of the production as a whole, but the references feel noticeably contrived and out-of-place, especially when the performers use them to mug to the audience.

Aside from these momentary lapses of judgment, the performances of the Sunday cast were incredibly good. Julie Makerov presented a robust and fiery Rosalinde, her soaring soprano the perfect fit for the Czardas sung by her character to prove her Hungarian authenticity to Prince Orlofsky's ball. Alan Woodrow plies his amazing voice in the role of Alfred, the operatic tenor intent on wooing Rosalinde. When, in a moment of amorous passion, he breaks into snatches of Wagner for the benefit of his beloved, it becomes abundantly clear why Rosalinde is hard pressed to parry his advances. Playing against gender, Nancy Maultsby was an excellent Prince Orlofsky, and Roger Honeywell was solid as the rakish Gabriel von Eisenstein.

The most striking performance was given by Sarah Coburn as Adele, the Eisensteins' chambermaid. Her soprano is effortless, combining strength with playfulness in a way that perfectly complements her character's willful temperament.

"Fledermaus" calls for a considerable amount of dancing as well as singing, and the entire cast is able to deftly pull off this difficult combination. The lightheartedness of the plot is accentuated by their high-spirited physicality, especially during Act 2 at Prince Orlofsky's ball. As Orlofsky's guests sing the praises of love, friendship and champagne, it is often hard to tell who is having the most fun - the characters or the performers.

Gerard Schwarz conducts the orchestra through Strauss' inspired score with exactly the kind of light touch demanded by the music. His versatility, already well established through his 20-year tenure with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and numerous varied productions with the Seattle Opera, is showcased by "Fledermaus"'s musical complexity. From the requisite waltzes to the dramatic flourish of the Czardas, the music is beautiful, subtle and refined.

The sets provide a strikingly elaborate backdrop that perfectly illustrates the decadence of the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Eisensteins' home is a hardwood masterpiece, while Prince Orlofsky's ballroom is versatile enough to alternately look out over a lush garden as well as a starry night sky. The costumes are appropriately resplendent without being over-the-top.

In spite of the shortcomings inherent to the translation, Seattle Opera's "Die Fledermaus" delivers enough fun, humor and spectacle to delight any audience. If you're not satisfied, you can always blame it on the champagne.

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