Longtime Times contributor Ruth Taber usually writes about food and travel. But she was a former accompanist and opera coach in New York in the 1950s, so I asked her to review El Paso Opera's recent production of "Die Fledermaus," which concluded a four-performance run today. Here's her review.
By Ruth Taber
An elaborate revenge plot involving mistaken identities and amorous exchanges — laced with humor and champagne — set the stage for El Paso Opera’s latest production, Johan Strauss’ "Die Fledermaus," which was performed Thursday, Friday and Sunday at the Summit Ballroom and Saturday at the Lotus Nightclub.
On opening night Thursday, the audience for this comic operetta was seated at tables around the ballroom floor, becoming part of the action. Early arrivals were treated to waltz lessons, part of director David Grabarkewitz's plan to include these new terpsichoreans in the second act.
The story centers around a partying, philandering husband named Eisenstein, who left his friend, Dr. Falke, overnight in a public park, dressed as a bat after a costume party. The plot is loosely based on a 19th century French vaudeville play, "Le Réveillon" (a midnight New Year’s Eve supper party), and Grabarkewitz added playful vaudeville-like touches, including dance steps with the obligatory cane/umbrella stick, excerpts of pop standards and throw-away comedy lines, including references to sharks and lawyers.
The star of the show was Strauss' familiar lilting music. Conductor and accompanist Benjamin Loeb sat at the piano — miraculously turning his own pages — as he led a well-rehearsed ensemble imparting the exhilaration of the Strauss score. Not an easy task, considering that performers were on stage and also scattered throughout the ballroom.
Baritone Gabriel Preisser’s warm, rich voice was enhanced by his excellent acting skills. His very comfortable stage presence made him a believable Dr. Falke (the perpetrator of the revenge plot), and we rooted for him to succeed in snaring assorted characters into his net.
Mezzo-soprano Jenny Heidtman sang with great feeling as Prince Orlovsky. There was no doubt that her life was “boring” and her laissez-faire attitude to the guests was exemplified by the famous aria "Chacun a' Son Gout," or “each to his own taste.”
A brief intermission after the first act was the signal for waiters to serve dessert (chocolate-drizzled cheesecake with a strawberry on top) accompanied by flutes of champagne, a prelude for the champagne toasts to follow in the operetta’s second act.
Tenor Wesley Morgan, who played the clueless Eisenstein, was pleasing in a second act duet with Preisser. The chorus work was impressive. The young UTEP chorus sang with feeling and their excellent diction was appreciated, important when there are no surtitles to fill in missing words.
Better than a seventh inning stretch, audience members were invited to waltz with soloists and chorus members at Prince Orlovsky’s ball in the second act. An orchestral recording of Strauss’ "Blue Danube" waltz provided the music and brought smiles and lots of toe tapping to those who preferred sitting at their tables.
Eisenstein got his comeuppance at the end of the second act. He was escorted to jail, for a former civil offense, by the prison warden, who also was a guest at the ball. We assume he finally realized how Dr. Falke had planned the ball as part of his revenge.
The bottom line: It was a delightful evening of music and farce with an occasionally overdone bit of shtick. Let’s hope that El Paso Opera has more comic operas planned in the future.