Is there any other opera in the rep that so resembles champagne as the heady, intoxicating Die Fledermaus (“The Bat,” 1874), from Johann Strauss II? Opera in the Heights's production is certainly vintage in sound with its young, appealing cast; maestro Eiki Isomura keeps his sprightly tuned orchestra just this side of grand cru; while director Bill Fabris supplies the bubbles. The only thing that's flat is the execrable libretto – in English, no less – by Ruth and Thomas Martin, who shoehorn words into Strauss's evanescent melodic cadence with a backhoe. The docking of the Hindenburg was far more graceful. There are much surer, fleeter Fledermaus translations available, but perhaps the price was right for this one. If you can, try not to listen to the words. You really don't need them, because Strauss's tunes are so giddy and glittering.
Although barely updated to Biedermeier 1906, Strauss's ever-fresh operetta remains firmly planted in its true home, fin-de-siècle Vienna, during the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where splendid dance halls could accommodate thousands of patrons who waltzed the nighttime away and pretended that Vienna was still the center of the universe. The king of dance bands was Herr Strauss the younger, who earlier had formed his own orchestra in competition with his illustrious father, a revered composer who had conquered Europe with his polonaises, polkas and, of course, waltzes. Their rivalry was intense, but when Dad died, son Johann Jr. combined both orchestras and continued to conquer not only Europe but Russia and America with his own exquisite songs. The son swiftly eclipsed the father.
Melody poured out of him, hundreds of dances. When French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène), whose satiric pieces had triumphed internationally, suggested to his friend that he turn his felicitous hand to the theater, a second successful career started. With Fledermaus he got a really lively script by Haffner and Genée, adapted from a French comedy hit by the team Halévy and Meilhac, who were soon to write Carmen for Bizet. Strauss's musical genius got a needed boost with this smart, tangy book.
In this spicy, sexy tale, marital fidelity gets a bashing. Although husband Eisenstein (tenor Michael Kuhn) must serve a five-day prison sentence, he receives an invitation to a swanky masked ball thrown by Russian Prince Orlovsky (mezzo Megan Berti). He's hot to get there to meet the girls. He'll go to the party first, then go to jail. Meanwhile, wife Rosalinda (soprano Lisa Borik) is being pestered by former lover Alfredo (tenor Benjamin Robinson), a “tenor,” so having her husband away in jail will be most opportune. Sassy maid Adele (soprano Julia Engel) gets invited by her sister, and Rosalinda allows her to go to get her out of the house. Everyone's on the make. All this is an elaborate ruse set up by Eisenstein's friend Falke (baritone Wesley Landry), who's out for comic revenge for a prank Eisenstein pulled on him at a previous party. Adultery and champagne – what a combo, how Viennese.
The young and vivacious cast is first-rate and leaps into the party mood with abandon. Lithe and assured, Kuhn has natural stage presence for days and a reedy, powerful voice that has overtones of smoky clarinet that fills intimate Lambert Hall. He's one of those few artists the audience can “read” from the back row. His Eisenstein is polished, soignee and hot to trot. Borik's shiny soprano sails through Strauss's most difficult arias with ardent control and honeyed tone. Her famous “Czárdás” ("Sounds from home"), as she impersonates a Hungarian countess at Orlovsky's party, is a standout. Engel, as saucy maid Adele, heard at OH over the past three seasons, has grown even more lovely as a singer. Her acting, never in doubt, is scene-stealing, but her “Laughing Song” – one of the show's most famous hits – combines the best of her: stylish and full of vocal fireworks. She dazzles.
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Berti has always glittered at OH with her resonant, radiant mezzo. Her sparkling Cenerentola from last season was a dream role, dreamily performed, and the dazzling memory of it refuses to leave me, not that I want it to. Here, though, in the “trouser role” of Orlovsky with its ambiguous sexuality, she's saddled with a thick bad Russian accent that comes and goes, mostly goes, that renders the Martins's awful translation rather incomprehensible. Maybe that's a good thing. Just sit back and listen to her velvety mezzo play with “Chacun à son gout” (“Each to his own taste”). Ahh, tasty indeed. Robinson, under a bicycle mustache as preening tenor Alfredo, gets laughs just by quoting famous arias. But he sings them divinely. Landry's baritone, as prankster Falke, is also wondrously rich and pure. You can understand everything he sings. Sorry about that.
The remaining members of the cast (Dashiell Waterbury as hapless lawyer Dr. Blind, Bryan DePan as prison warden Frank, Cristina Amaro as Adele's sister Ida) are equally accomplished, and thank goodness the speaking role of jailer Frosch (Brock Hatten), usually played by a comic whose better days were seen in vaudeville, is mercifully shortened. Nothing against Hatten, but the Martins finally did something right. The OH chorus sparkles, and everybody looks splendid in Reba Kochersperger's period peacock feathers or smoking caps. The orchestra has never sounded so lively. They, too, I imagine, are drunk on Strauss.
Surprisingly, the Viennese didn't warm to Fledermaus at its world premiere until after the operetta wowed Berlin a year later when the European economic crisis was finally over, and the Austrians were eager to forget their troubles and dance the night away. This most refreshing operetta waltzes right into the heart. Heady and potent, Strauss's stage masterpiece leaves one thoroughly contented and slightly woozy, smiling all the while at the fun of it. Champagne's ready. Okay, OH, pour the bubbly!
Die Fledermaus continues at 7:30 p.m. September 22, and 24 at Opera in the Heights,
1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $13-$71.