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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Helikon's 'Fledermaus' Hits All the Right Notes

The Helikon Opera Theater had quite a bit to celebrate Sunday evening: the opening of their seventh season, the completion of an extensive remodeling project and the premiere of a lively new production of "Die Fledermaus."

And celebrate they did. The action of "Die Fledermaus," a comic operetta composed by Johann Strauss, centers around an elaborate Viennese ball, which, in this highly innovative production, thunders to life in the intimate setting of the Helikon with the clever staging by Dmitry Bertman.

The 200 seats of the beautifully redecorated theater surround the actors on three sides, with the orchestra set off on a platform on the fourth side. The actors frequently interact with audience members, blurring the line between spectator and performer. To further add to the effect, waiters pass out champagne at the beginning of the overture and shots of vodka during the ball scene.

This production is being billed by the Helikon as the original edition of Strauss' 1874 operetta. This is a bit misleading, as it is certainly not a performance like anything ever seen by Strauss. What this version does do, however, is capture the spirit of the original by using many of its techniques, if not the exact text. Like the premiere in Vienna, Bertman's version is performed in one act with three scenes, with a brief intermission after the first scene (the usual practice today is to perform it in three acts). With the production running at just under four hours, this potentially could have been difficult on the viewer, but non-stop action and the active involvement of the audience make it seem much shorter.

The three fantastic sculptures that comprise the set command immediate attention and highlight the fanciful tone of the production as a whole. These three-meter towers, each a fairy tale-like village, are created from the shapes of violins and tubas in different sizes. The effective use of these sets makes up for the limits of the theater-in-the-round setting and the relatively small stage area.

The operetta's story is an intricately-woven tale of deception, disguise, and revenge set into motion by a practical joke played on Dr. Falke, which leaves him dressed as a bat. In turn, the jokester Count Eisenstein must serve a short jail term starting the evening of a grand ball given by the Russian Prince Orlovsky. Knowing this, Eisenstein's wife, Rosalinde, arranges to meet her lover, Alfred, that evening. Meanwhile, their maid, Adele, claims to have a sick relative, but really wants a free evening so she, too, may attend the ball. Dr. Falke convinces Eisenstein to first attend the ball, then go to jail. Alfred gets arrested in Eisenstein's place, and Rosalinde also appears at the ball, disguised as a Hungarian princess, and is seduced by her unwitting husband.

All of this deception comes to a hysterically funny climax in the third scene, when the entire drunken ball seems to have migrated to the jail.

The standard production of "Die Fledermaus" leans heavily on the frenetic pace of the unfolding story, but staging and actors often simply don't possess the requisite energy levels. Here, Bertman has masterfully worked in diversionary subplots that keep the audiences' attention. The young cast, too, infuse the Helikon production with an enthusiasm and believability. In all this, the fine work of the 60-piece orchestra almost gets lost amid the hustle and bustle. The size of the orchestra, however, seemed too large for the otherwise intimate hall, and in fact often overpowered the singing.

The high point of the evening vocally was Marina Andreyeva's pure, ringing rendition of Adele's hallmark "laughing song" in the second scene, where she convinces an already drunk Eisenstein that despite the resemblance, she is not his maid. Prince Orlovsky is played by Erik Salim-Meruet, the famous countertenor better known by the stage name Kurmangaliev.

In most productions, the role of Orlovsky is either played by a woman or transposed down and sung by a male tenor. By casting a countertenor as the Prince, the Helikon is following the practice used by Strauss in the original performances. Although it is a bit disconcerting at first to hear a man singing soprano, Salim-Meruet has a beautiful voice and plays his role with great style and enthusiasm, taking over the stage with athletic leaps.

One of the delights of watching a fresh production of "Die Fledermaus" is seeing what path the director takes in adding to the original libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Gen?e, a practice that has existed since the first production. In Bertman's version, the result is a number of contemporary references that seamlessly pepper the operetta.

Another tradition taken from the original performances of the operetta is the inclusion of cameo appearances during the ball in the second scene. Sunday night's guests included the tenor Anatoly Solovyaenko, singing a Russian folk song, the popular singer Vtchislav Malezhik, flutist Alexander Korneyev and a small Balalaika ensemble. According to the theater administration, these cameos will be a part of every performance, with different guests every evening.

All in all, Helikon's "Die Fledermaus" is a spectacle not to be missed. Bertman took many risks in its creation, and with a less talented cast, many of these experiments, especially the physical humor in the third scene, would have seemed contrived or cliched. But an exquisite attention to detail and an impressive depth of talent make this production a party worth checking out.

"Lyetuchaya Mysh" ("Die Fledermaus") is next showing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Monday. Tickets cost between 30,000 and 150,000 rubles ($5.60 to $27.90) and may be purchased at the box office located at 19 Bolshaya Nikitskaya. For details and performance schedules call 290-0971.