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Photograph by Pat Kirk

Aristo Airs: Christina Major and Joseph Wright enjoy some couch time.

Bat Soars At Opera

Opera San José bids farewell to Montgomery Theater with superlative Strauss

By Scott MacClelland

JOHANN STRAUSS' Die Fledermaus can be one of the most treacherous operas to stage. Opera San José director Irene Dalis expresses her own reticence about the gem: "It's like a soufflé; it can fall flat." To be a success, "The Bat" needs great singing, great acting and great comedy.

In that case, there's good news and bad news. The good news is the current production has it all, plus the added nostalgia of one last opportunity to enjoy the unique charms of their home for two decades, the venerable and intimate Montgomery Theater. The bad news is that this Fledermaus is so good that you might find yourself resisting any future opportunity to witness the piece for fear of the all-too-common fallen soufflé.

Actually, that may be the best news of all. Dalis' company exists to provide talented young professional singers with a degree of stage experience they can find almost nowhere else in America. The residents of the company therefore learn how to act, and in Sunday's performance, acting produced as much success as any other component.

That goes double for comedic acting. Happily, both the spoken dialogue in English and the sung German got the same standard of comedy, the sight gags, the shtick, the personality excesses that went for the top without pricking the soufflé. Typically, the most dangerous moment in the whole piece begins Act 3, a stretch of pure spoken and acted comedy, without music, by characters who are drunk. Wisely, the company engaged the multitalented Kelly Houston for the role of Frosch, the jailer. With his own Kramer-like character and the other gags, reactions, props and "prisoners," Houston had the audience rocking with laughter. No one got specific credit for scripting the skit, but they should have. (In addition to the Eisenstein imposter, the other inmates included M. Stewart and M. Jackson.)

Christina Major carried the "dramatic" soprano role of Rosalinde with a marvelous aristocratic air and polished vocal authority. She lost none of it in her czardas scene disguised as the Hungarian countess. (She and two members of the other cast, Joseph Muir and Sandra Rubalcava, are winding up their OSJ residencies with this production.) As the tricked husband Eisenstein, Etsel Skelton carried a similar bearing, except while drunk, and an easy floating tenor.

As Alfred, the relentless former and would-be lover of Rosalinde, J. Raymond Meyers cavorted like one of the Marx Brothers, singing bits of every familiar tenor aria in the rep and smoothing himself in the mirror with equal self-appreciation. Smart (and smarting from a previous humiliation) Joseph Wright as Dr. Falke exploited his opportunity for revenge with charm, elegance, excellent timing and a warm comfortable baritone at service to his every whim. Deep mezzo Janelle Laurenti became Falke's confidant in the scheme as the eternally bored Prince Orlofsky, playing along while running the party, and setting the tone by praising champagne and reiterating his philosophy as summed up in Chacon son gout.

Jesse Merlin proved a standout actor and comedian at the party and later as the seriously hung-over jail commander, topping off both with a fine basso. As Adele, the chambermaid cum actress, Susanna Uher had all the sparkling presence but with a hard-edged vocal production that could beneficially stand for some refining.

Conductor Jonathan Hodel got a bold and propulsive response from his little orchestra. Like Dalis herself, stage director Lorna Haywood had a big soprano career, especially in her native Britain, and deserves much credit for making the small Montgomery stage delivery such a successful product. The curtain call ended with the entire company singing two choruses of "California Here We Come," exhorting the audience to buy next season's tickets to the opera's new home without delay.

Die Fledermaus plays April 23-24, 29-30 and May 1 at 8pm, April 25 and May 2 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, San Jose. Tickets are $43-$63. (408.437.4450)

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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