Tit for tat in bit by bat
Pepperdine University’s Fine Arts Division proves the old adage, “Revenge is a dish best served operatically,” last week offering a lavish buffet in “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), the operetta by Johann Strauss the son.
Even opera aficionados must take secret delight in hearing such chestnuts sung in English — this version translated by Ruth & Thomas Martin — which provides the chance to understand not only the plot but its subtleties.
With the plot’s marital infidelities, conniving maids, swinging princes, dancing hussies and inebriated jailers, one must stop and ask, to paraphrase the immortal operatic analysis of Anna Russell, “Remember the bat?”
Mr. and Mrs. Von Eisenstein have a typically upper-class marriage — relatively loveless and relatively open. The eponymous maus is Von Eisenstein’s buddy, Dr. Falke. A while back, the two men had been at a costume party, Von Eisenstein dressed as a butterfly and the doctor dressed as a bat. Both having imbibed big-time, Von Eisenstein left his buddy spending the night on a park bench, where the doctor awakened to the unforgettable embarrassment of having morning walkers see him in his bat costume. He now seeks revenge. He invites the prankster to disguise himself and attend a party at the home of a Russian prince; and soon an invitation and disguise also arrive for Mrs. Von E.
Subplots include an upcoming, eight-day jail term for Von Eisenstein, a saucy maid who connives a night off, and an opera singer who compulsively serenades anyone with ears. Eisenstein theorizes he can be two places at one time — heading off to a party before turning himself in at the jail.
Plot or subplot, for major character or bit player, director Henry Price misses no opportunities. Someone is always doing or singing or saying something small but noteworthy — and comical. The whole is lively but not campy.
Maestro Thomas Osborne leads a tidy orchestra, particularly in its percussion and winds, from which the operetta’s familiar tunes billow happily. Scenic designer Kermit Heckert offers luxurious sets of mahogany, marble and miscellaneous Victoriana.
Still, Pepperdine Fine Arts Division students continue to inspire delight, with delicious acting abilities and voices well on their way to professional.
Shelli Fabiano is part stainless steel, part silk. Her strong but mellifluous voice combines with her astonishing power of characterization, and she is believable and mesmerizing as Rosalinda Von Eisenstein, whether being an insouciant wife or a Gabor sister. Joseph Ashby is comically pouty and put-upon as Von Eisenstein.
As the maid Adele, Caroline Carter’s silvery tone and petulant character light the stage. Remedios Loosli plays the lawyer with dust on his hair but clarity in his voice. Tabitha Laws creates the operatic equivalent of the “dumb blonde.”
As Alfred the opera singer, Eric Weigand plays moping suitor while ably humming snips of famous operas. Miguel Villahermosa’s mellow baritone fulfills the avenging Dr. Falke. Daniel Peretto gives his prison warden incipient humor, while his baritone voice shows power and expressiveness.
As the drunken jailer, Don Kidd seems an incarnation of Red Skelton. Act III offers the director much music to fill, which Price amply does by Vaudevillian bits of risky direction — overfilled teacups, cigar burns, hat tricks — done to perfection by Kidd and Peretto.
Angela Rasmussen triumphs over yet another trouser role, or in this case velvet breeches, as Russian Prince Orlovsky. As Ivan, Brian Speck sneaks in a guest appearance and his own aria.
The operetta’s always-anticipated “special guests” included alumna Jessica Rivera, dressed as a Valkyrie and singing a delightful “I Wish to be a Prima Donna” and John Raitt, looking dashing and singing “Largo al Factotum.”
The cast is so well-rehearsed, it can cover any small flubs. In the final tableau, champagne glasses crashed to the ground. Kidd grabbed his mop and swabbed the floor pathetically as the rest of the happy crowd drank a final toast.
In Act II, Von Eisenstein sings “How Energizing” about his newest indiscretion. It best summarizes this production.