The Mouse That Roars

Consistently mixing amateur fervor with professional polish, the Central City Opera has long championed traditions that are as practical as they are sentimental. This summer marks the return of a trio of former apprentices, who have since performed with such respected companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Washington Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. They've come back to the historic mining town to play leading roles in the CCO's gratifying production of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus. Baritone Samuel Mungo is engaging as the wayward socialite Gabriel von Eisenstein, and soprano Angela Turner Wilson delights as Adele, the household maid. But soprano Emily Pulley triumphs in her mesmerizing turn as Eisenstein's double-dealing wife, Rosalinda.

Artfully blending impeccable comic timing with a relaxed yet regal presence, Pulley renders an entrancing portrait of the bored Viennese housewife who rises to the occasion when she learns that her mate plans to attend a midnight party instead of serving a short prison sentence for assault. Undaunted by Eisenstein's intended infidelities, Rosalinda attends the same soiree disguised as a Hungarian countess and, having earned her unsuspecting husband's flirtatious advances, sings a fiery "Czardas" near the end of Act Two. It's a show-stopping scene that, as elegantly delivered by Pulley on opening night, elicited sustained applause and shouts of "Brava!" And Pulley had already been riveting in Act One when she sang a charming duet with her sometime lover, Alfredo (Emmanuel di Villarosa), a saucy and incorrigible opera singer. When she joins co-stars Wilson and Mungo in a threefold game of deception near the end of Act One, Pulley shows an impressive command of the trickier passages in the Waltz King's frothy score--and dances up a storm while maintaining her character's drama-queen verve. Nimbly flouncing about the stage while admiring her upturned countenance in a hand mirror, Pulley deftly articulates Rosalinda's rapid-fire utterances (one of which, the recurring "Goodness, gracious me!" rhymes with the trio's familiar title, "Calamity") with virtuosic skill.

Pulley's efforts are beautifully complemented by Wilson, whose buoyant impersonation of Adele bubbles over during a rendition of Act Two's "Laughing Song." Confidently brushing off Eisenstein's assertion that she resembles his maid, Wilson earns guffaws when she hikes her skirts to prove the swaggering Adele's point that one's status as a lady lies in direct proportion to the number of undergarments she's wearing. Always amusing when piqued or flushed--which happens to be most of the time--and eminently easy on the eyes, Wilson brings lighthearted grace to a role that could easily be reduced to a flurry of sight gags and broad comic takes. As does the strong-voiced Mungo, who, despite momentary lapses in his character's debonair elan (a peculiar longshoreman's flavor creeps into his delivery of "Do ya still have da bat costoom?"), tickles theatergoers' funnybones. This is particularly true when he assumes the identity of a Frenchman and quips, "May I take the liberty of introducing moiself?"

The fine supporting cast is led by Michael Scarborough, whose portrait of Eisenstein's confidante, Dr. Falke, is a pleasing mixture of understated charm and wry humor. And he cuts a mighty figure in his Act Three cape that suggests the "Flying Mouse" of the operetta's title. As Frank, the prison warden, Curtis Olds injects the goings-on with bemused diplomacy, while Joyce Campana imbues the "trousers role" of party host Prince Orlovsky with a laid-back, if somewhat listless, savoir faire that underscores her character's credo, Chacun a son gout ("To each his own"). And in the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer, Gene Scheer gets away with a rap sheet's worth of laugh-inducing bits. Whether he's strumming the floor-to-ceiling prison bars to the accompaniment of a harp, supplying half of Eisenstein's gestures when the two men are handcuffed together or tossing a barb in the direction of an indignant, bow-waving cello section, Scheer's measured antics border on, but rarely become, overkill.

Although the dialogue by the late playwright Charles Ludlam (founder of the aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company) is witty and sharp, it could use a trim. And despite the fact that the actors' extreme performing style perfectly suits the work's farcical aspects, director David Gately's broad-brush approach fails to derive as much humor from each character's internal impulses. These are, after all, people with far too much time on their hands, who are obsessed with maintaining impossible facades--and they should be struggling to keep hold of their dignity instead of letting it unravel time and again in a slew of frantic gestures and outsized facial expressions.

Even so, Strauss's lilting melodies, conductor John Moriarty's richly sonorous orchestra and the leading performers' lovely singing voices are more than enough to stimulate the imagination. And the achievements of set designer Michael Anania and lighting artist David Jacques reflect yet another CCO tradition: the commitment to first-rate design made famous by the company's legendary founder, Robert Edmond Jones, a leading proponent of the sort of emblematic design that evoked feeling as opposed to dazzling the eye. That legacy is especially apparent during Act Two, when several cascading draperies and subtly patterned backdrops are saturated with a shifting palette of colors to indicate the changing landscape of Orlovsky's night-long entertainment. Combined with the gallant efforts of Pulley, Mungo and Wilson, the handsomely staged show becomes--bad manners and all--a feast for the senses.


Die Fledermaus, through August 7 at the Central City Opera House, 200 Eureka Street, Central City, 303-292-6700.