- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

Remember those old TV specials in the 1960s and 1970s? You know, the ones they used to hype as “star-studded spectaculars”? On Saturday, the Washington Opera brought back those thrilling days of yesteryear with its gala opening night performance of Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus,” a musical comedy romp if there ever was one.

Not only did the cast and crew strut their finest stuff, they were also joined onstage at DAR Constitution Hall by a veritable galaxy of stars, including dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, foreign ambassadors, maestro Placido Domingo and Washington’s very own Supremes — the ones who wear the black robes. It was almost more fun than could possibly be packed into a single entertaining evening. Too bad the guy at the helm, Lotfi Mansouri, forgot he was supposed to be directing an opera, not “Your Show of Shows.”

“Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat,” literally translated as “flying mouse” in German), is one of the more lighthearted works to emerge from a sometimes heavy-handed musical genre. Loaded with nearly as much snappy dialogue as music, it’s one of the most accessible operas for newbies who will find its unabashed silliness and irrepressible tunes and dance music, composed by the acknowledged master of the Viennese waltz, hard to resist. Furthermore, the opera is frequently performed in the United States in English, as it was Saturday night, removing yet another potential barrier to enjoyment.

Plotwise, “Fledermaus” is a kind of upper class “Animal House.” Gabriel von Eisenstein, a minor Viennese noble, is on the eve of having to serve a token jail sentence for dissing a city cop. His so-called pal, Dr. Falke, however, has concocted a plan for Eisenstein to use his absence from home as a cover to attend one last glittering party before heading off to the slammer. Eisenstein quickly scampers off to indulge in a few dalliances, seemingly undetected by his charming wife, Rosalinde.

Unbeknownst to Eisenstein, however, Falke has also invited three other guests to the party as well: Rosalinde, who will attend as a masked Hungarian countess, her chambermaid, and the jail warden. Of course, Eisenstein ends up trying to seduce his disguised wife, who is shocked to see him there instead of in jail. Things get messier and more amusing as the evening’s extended practical joke progresses.

The opera’s approachability has opened it over the years to at least two traditions that are tempting to abuse. The first of these is the big Act II party scene at Prince Orlofsky’s mansion during which VIP guest stars often appear on opening night. And they sure did on Saturday, with Maestro Domingo showing up to sing — brilliantly as usual — a snappy tango, a Franz Lehar aria, and a sparkling zarzuela duet with the smashing young soprano Virginia Tola. Added to this show-within-a-show was an aerial pas de deux by two of the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancers, plus surprise onstage appearances by several ambassadors and three Supreme Court justices-cum-opera fans: Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony M. Kennedy.

The party-crashers were a lot of fun, but the opera’s second longstanding tradition proved distinctly problematic in this performance. Act III opens with an extended “drunk scene” for the jailer, Frosch — in a non-singing role. Frequently, it departs entirely from the script and is at the mercy of whomever is hurling out the mad-libs.

As portrayed by actor-comedian Jason Graae, Frosch was fun enough as a character. But as to quality of the comic dialogue, send me a rewrite. After a lame potshot at Bill O’Reilly and a few amusing comic asides about Martha Stewart, Mr. Graae’s Frosch fixated on the sort of homosexual “marriage” jokes that would have got him shot in old Vienna. The audience seemed amused at first. But soon, people began to duck out the side-doors as they began to assume the interminable shtick might never end. Even a comic opera has to be taken seriously on one level. Director Mansouri completely lost control of the material-and verisimilitude — a bad call and instant low point for the new season.

Fortunately, there was still Strauss’ wondrous, toe-tapping music, with the Washington Opera Orchestra — always at its finest under the baton of music director Heinze Fricke — and decent singers, for the most part.

The male roles were largely sung with more attention paid to their comic effect than their lyric possibilities. Wolfgang Brendel (Eisenstein), John Del Carlo (Frank, the warden), Peter Edelmann (Falke), and Robert Baker (Blind, the lawyer), all turned in plausible performances in spite of being forced to perform far too many spit-takes. As Alfred, Rosalinde’s rejected and much put-upon former lover, tenor Jesus Garcia was actually quite special with his lyric tenor projecting a lovely sense of ruffled dignity.

The female leads seemed to take their jobs, and this opera, a good bit more seriously. As Rosalinde, soprano June Anderson did her fair share of comic bits. But she also never forgot that she was supposed to be singing opera for paying customers. Her brief arias warmed the room like rays of sunlight, and her spirited Act II “Czardas” — sung in Hungarian — was the hands-down musical highlight of the evening.

As Rosalinde’s maid, Adele, lyric soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang was a last-minute substitute for the vocally indisposed Maki Mori. What a charmer. Miss Hwang’s lithe young voice still has some room to grow, but she wrapped it around Strauss’ tricky arias without breaking a sweat, applying a light comic touch in her role but never losing her dignity in the process.

Sadly, the remaining female role — the trouser-requiring part of Prince Orlofsky — just wasn’t ready for prime time. Veteran mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova, singing Orlofsky in English for the first time — was kept on track by the bellowings of an offstage prompter which was startling and disconcerting. The high-paying opening-night audience deserved better.

*1/2

WHO: The Washington Opera

WHAT: “Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss II

WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, 11, 17, 2 p.m. Sept. 13, 7 p.m. Sept. 15.

TICKETS: $41-$260

TELEPHONE: Call 202/295-2400.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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