A little Italian magic came as the most unexpected surprise Saturday night during the Palm Beach Opera’s presentation of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus.
Playing Prince Orlofsky en travesti was the celebrated mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, resplendent in Russian battle dress and a white beard. Pressed in Act II to sing something (itself an interpolation into the libretto), Orlofsky turned to conductor David Stern, and the orchestra struck up — not a Russian folk song or even an aria by the Waltz King, but that test of tenorial glory, Puccini’s “Nessun dorma.”
As glamorous as her career has been, it can be safely said that Blythe has never received the tenor’s acclaim that audiences willingly hand over when a singer completes an aria like “Nessun dorma,” likely the most well-known of all opera arias worldwide. But she earned it here, with a fine, committed performance of the Act III aria from Turandot (it was also essentially a trailer for Palm Beach Opera’s 2019-20 season, which opens with that opera).
Her voice is a big, powerful one, and in the Puccini her very special tone color — closer to alto than mezzo, with a slightly dark timbre but also a remarkable pleading quality — gave this aria a less triumphal, more passionately striving sound. The large audience at the Kravis on Saturday night went absolutely silent after the chorus on stage gave the introduction that leads to Calaf’s aria, and at the end, exploded in bravos and standing ovations.
That may have been the most memorable moment of this Fledermaus, but that’s not to say the show fell short in other respects. Indeed, it was quite a good Fledermaus, in that it kept mostly to the general libretto without throwing in extraneous comedy bits as I’ve seen too often. And while I would have preferred to hear the operetta’s songs in the original German rather than the clunky Ruth and Thomas Martin translations, doing the show in English made more sense for the cast. You’re asking opera singers to be proto-Broadway actors, after all, and adding a layer of a different language on top of it would have made things pointlessly difficult.
Most of Strauss’s operettas don’t get performed nowadays here; the librettos are usually cited as the big problem, even when the music is as attractive as it is in something like Eine Nacht in Venedig. Fledermaus has a very serviceable libretto, and stage director Dona D. Vaughn, who prepared this version of it, showed restraint in not adding rafts of topical references (aside from a backhanded reference to Paul Manafort that drew vociferous applause) and keeping the show locked in its late 19th-century aesthetic.
Aside from her Puccini, Blythe was effective as Orlofsky, though her verse in “Chacun a son gout” she decided to sing with a kind of swoopy shriek on most of the lines, which was odd and not very appealing. Some of the finest singing came from the baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, returning to the Palm Beach Opera stage as Falke, the crafter of the revenge plot. Greenhalgh’s voice has gotten rounder and bigger since I heard him last, and he has a strong, attractive stage presence.
Tenor Jack Swanson, who had a good deal of fun with his Mario Bros.-style accent as Alfredo, revealed a voice with potential to thrill in the right opera; he has a strong spinto instrument as is, and it would be good to hear him in a lyric role. Soprano Diana Newman was a very good Adele, especially in her Laughing Song in Act II. Her acting was broad and funny, and her lightly colored voice handled the vocal acrobatics smoothly; she was somewhat underpowered, but her musicality was such that it was worth a little strain to hear her.
Emily Blair, a Benenson Young Artist with the opera company, was Rosalinde, filling in for the originally cast Chloé Olivia Moore, a Canadian soprano. Blair, a Chicagoan who sang the “Czardas” from this operetta in December’s “Rising Stars” concert, was having some vocal trouble in the second act, with her upper register notably tightening up, especially at the end of the “Czardas.” And her acting was also rather stiff, at least in Act I, all of which goes to show that this role was likely a baptism by fire for her as she got her arms around her first major character. Even so, she handled the demands of Rosalinde well, and at her best her big voice was a pleasure to hear.
Tenor Zach Borichevsky was a fine Eisenstein, a good actor whose jealous rage in Act III was quite believeable, and whose agile tenor fit Strauss’s light style well. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was equally good as Frank, both in acting and singing, and a good comic partner with Borichevsky. Tenor Michael Anderson’s Blind had a variable German accent but was still amusingly befuddled, and the excellent actor John Felix was delightful as Frosch, playing the role most refreshingly as clueless rather than a drunkard.
Greg Ritchey’s chorus was crisp and strong, and David Stern led the orchestra with his customary vigor and high spirits. Gary Eckhart’s sets from the Fort Worth Opera were lovely and traditional, as were Zack Brown’s costumes, making the production as a whole delightful to look at.