Palm Beach Opera wraps season with a delightful “Fledermaus”

By David Fleshler

Zach Borichevsky and Emily Blair in Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus" at Palm Beach Opera.

Zach Borichevsky and Emily Blair in Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus” at Palm Beach Opera. Photo: Bruce Bennett

Palm Beach Opera’s delightful production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus dispenses with some of the creaky 19th-century humor while retaining the effervescent music that has kept the work in the repertory.

This champagne-soaked story of mixed-up identities, revenge and forgiveness in Viennese high society takes place to the tune of some of Strauss’s greatest melodies.

The plot hasn’t aged as successfully. At its 1874 premiere, audiences could accept the idea that a half-face mask could prevent a man from recognizing his own wife, thought stuttering was funny and appreciated those lovable stock figures the scheming maid and the drunken jail guard.

Fortunately Palm Beach Opera’s production, which opened Friday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, followed the current tradition of updating the dialogue—a Paul Manafort reference here, some mild sexual innuendo there—and making judicious cuts such as the interminable Act 3 monologue of the jail guard. Still, not every new joke worked and there were some real groaners.

But what keeps this work alive is the music. Led by chief conductor David Stern, the performance was full of energy and personality, with vigorous duets and trios on stage and another fine outing by the orchestra, with creamy string playing and lively winds and brass. To the company’s credit, they took a traditional approach to the famous overture, leaving the curtain down and doing nothing to distract from the orchestra’s buoyant performance of Strauss’s great concert piece.

After a hearty “Guten abend,” from PBO general director Daniel Biaggi, the evening quickly switched to English—albeit mangled throughout the operetta by hammy French, Italian, Russian and Hungarian accents. Although the operetta was sung and spoken in English, the supertitles turned out to be essential during the singing.

Stage director Dona D. Vaughn directed the action in a manner that brought out the comedy without overdoing it, avoiding the hyperactive slapstick with which lesser directors so often ruin the comedies of Mozart and Rossini. She also added some of the dialogue—as with Eisenstein’s aside that he wanted to dress classily for anticipated jail inmates who would include “investment bankers, lawyers and campaign chairmen.”

The best vocal performance of the evening came from the American soprano Diana Newman in the role of Adele, the maid who lies her way into Prince Orlofsky’s party. She spun out the role’s comically elaborate coloratura with ease and wit, and brought a warm, vivid voice to arias in which she lamented her fate as a servant.

The young soprano Emily Blair, a first-year member of the Benenson Young Artist Program at Palm Beach Opera, substituted for Chloé Olivia Moore as Rosalinde. If being thrust suddenly into a leading role made her nervous, it didn’t show.

Her sweet, rich voice danced through the arias and ensemble numbers with her husband Eisenstein, swiftly traversing pathos, sarcasm and irritation. And she gave a lively, personality-filled Czardas in the central party scene, singing with affecting nostalgia about her fake Hungarian homeland.

Stephanie Blythe in "Die Fledermaus."

Stephanie Blythe in “Die Fledermaus.” Photo: Bruce Bennett

The well-known mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe appeared on stage in a white beard and elaborate court dress in the trousers role of Prince Orlofsky. Her performance as a male was stunningly convincing, even when she let her female voice squeak out.

In one of the most impressive performances of the evening, Blythe gave a showstopping account of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” to entertain party guests, bringing to the aria such a powerful and convincing tenor that audience members during intermission wondered whether she had been lip-synching or it was her own voice (it was).

Tall, lean and bearded, the tenor Zach Borichevsky gave a convincing performance as Eisenstein, the urbane man-about-town who is the target of the revenge plot. Although his voice sometimes got covered by the orchestra, he sang with comic vigor in his ensemble numbers and brought impressive fury to his denunciation of Alfredo and Rosalinde in one of Strauss’s famous melodies.

Sets and costumes were appropriately lavish, with heavy drapes, wall paintings, chandeliers, ball gowns, tuxedoes and red-liveried servants. Credit for brisk dance sequences that didn’t seem to interfere with the singing due to choreographer Mara Newbery Greer.

As Alfredo, Jack Swanson created the caricature of the smarmy Italian lover, with a smug tenor voice that he used to slip in a few bars of the greatest hits of Verdi and Puccini here and there.

As Dr. Falke, the baritone Tobias Greenhalgh was vocally a bit underpowered but suave and persuasive as he maneuvered his friend into a trap. As jail warden Frank, the bass-baritone Wayne Tigges offered fine comic timing and the best diction of the evening, singing in a manner that let audience members almost stop relying on the supertitles.

Rounding out the cast, with comic performances that didn’t go overboard, were Michael Anderson as the stuttering lawyer Dr. Blind and John Felix as the jail guard.

Die Fledermaus will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

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Sat Mar 23, 2019
at 1:08 pm
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