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Washington Opera chief Plácido Domingo said something revealing during the company’s season-opening performance: “The music in Die Fledermaus is so wonderful…that it’s almost an opera.” In fact, Fledermaus isn’t an opera at all—it’s a “light opera,” an operetta, a popular form with a different tradition from grand opera. Perhaps Domingo was suggesting that old Jo Jr. should be grateful that a real opera company is gussying up his little confection into something resembling Art.

Of course, the smaller houses that once presented most of America’s light opera have largely gone the way of spats, so the big opera companies have become Operetta Central. Unfortunately, the fit has never been a comfy one. The fundamental problem is that operettas are written like Broadway musicals, with the story carried by a spoken play and musical numbers popping up where needed. That means opera singers have to speak—a lot. Not always a good idea. Still, given a modest-sized performing venue, a good translation, and a cast of singers with a shared language and training in contemporary spoken theater, the dialogue in Fledermaus can play with the natural breeziness and crackling wit of a good musical comedy. But—be honest—when have you ever seen that happen?

The most confident acting in WashOp’s production comes from Jason Graae, in the entirely nonsinging role of perpetually drunk jailer Frosch. But Graae has a leg up. While most of the cast is saddled with Ruth and Thomas Martin’s cutesy, woefully old-fashioned English translation, Frosch has a better deal: In one of Fledermaus’ happier traditions, he’s given rein to interpolate fresh comic material into his Act 3 monologue. A TV actor and musical-theater performer, Graae seizes that freedom and runs with it, offering a well-gauged mix of physical clowning and stand-up comedy—as well as a slew of topical jokes on everything from Martha Stewart to gay marriage. They garner the heartiest laughs of the evening.

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With the principal roles, comedy—not to mention credibility—is on far rockier ground. It’s no surprise, really: A multinational cast of hard-core opera singers has been asked to sell a tired translation in the acoustically hostile barn of WashOp’s current home, DAR Constitution Hall. The result is big-face, semaphore acting of the “Can you hear me in the back?” variety, and only a few of the singers really pull it off.

June Anderson, alas, is not one of them. Her singing voice has lost little of its creaminess or clarion luster in the quarter-century since her debut, and she’s clearly a terrific physical and vocal match for the role of Rosalinde, the alluring high-society wife who disguises herself to dupe her philandering husband into seducing her at a party. But she’s rather at sea as an actress, in need of more nurturing direction than she evidently got. Her naturally aristocratic poise would have paid far greater dividends than the flouncing, overwrought stage business she’s been given.

But one’s heart really goes out to legendary Russian mezzo Elena Obraztsova in one of the repertoire’s weirder trouser roles, Prince Orlofsky. This mature singer captures the been-there-had-sex-with-that attitude of Orlofsky to a T, her stoutly regal bearing and baritonal chest register making the prince even more unsettlingly androgynous than usual. But English is clearly not Obraztsova’s first language—it’s probably not even her fourth—and as a result, her lines are either half-forgotten and mumbled into her fake goatee or fully remembered yet rendered unintelligibly.

The prompter, however, is quite intelligible, shouting lines at the top of her lungs from a box downstage-center. And it becomes a hilarious (if unintended) running gag for anyone sitting close enough to see it that Obraztsova is clearly reading her lines from notes cribbed on the back of her sash, on the back of her fan, on the dinner menu, and on—this is the best one—a scrap of paper shoved into a champagne flute. Surely it would have been kinder to have her play the role in Russian.

Korean soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang isn’t exactly speaking the king’s English up there, either. But this last-minute replacement for an indisposed Maki Mori acquits herself honorably as opportunistic chambermaid Adele. Her voice is lithe and bright, and she sounds assured in Adele’s ornaments. If only the same went for her perky but one-note acting. (Mori returns for the final three performances of the run—which is good news: If her work in WashOp’s 2001 The Tales of Hoffman is anything to go by, her coloratura chops should dazzle in the role.)

As Eisenstein, Rosalinde’s gadabout husband, who defers a weeklong jail sentence to get in one last night of drinking and debauchery at Prince Orlofsky’s, the fine Wagnerian baritone Wolfgang Brendel makes an asset of his heavily German-accented English. His MO is to stride confidently to the edge of the stage, bug out his eyes, and overarticulate his lines with all the goofball charm of a certain Californian gubernatorial candidate. Pouting when he doesn’t get his way, dancing like a deranged marionette, and lustily singing nonsense syllables when he forgets his lyrics, Brendel manages to erase the line between the choreographed antics of the staging and a thoroughly lived-in portrayal of Eisenstein as an overgrown kid in white tie and tails. Shameless, yes, but also pretty damn entertaining.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. But Jesús Garcia’s winning smile and warmly Italianate tenor turn Rosalinde’s preening backdoor man, Alfred, into a real charmer. And a word of thanks should go to Peter Edelmann for singing and acting the part of the story’s merry antagonist, Dr. Falke, with—here’s a novelty—elegant restraint.

Director Lotfi Mansouri has built a distinguished career creating pretty, diverting, and utterly traditional stagings of war-horse operas, and he’s always found a conservative audience that delights in them. His Fledermaus, derived from a production he staged while general director of the San Francisco Opera, is a slick, old-school schtickfest that transforms Strauss’ teasingly effervescent little charmer into an industrial-size bubble machine.

As machines go, it does its job efficiently, especially when aided by Thierry Bosquet’s deliriously colorful League of Nations costuming and Peggy Hickey’s fluid, genre-hopping choreography. But did Mansouri have to be so dismissive of the side audiences? The DARCon sets are newly built adaptations of the ones Mansouri used in San Francisco, so would it have killed anyone to create a concave, rather than a convex, upstage wall and tilt the side doors to a shallower angle so that all of WashOp’s subscribers could actually see the show? Once again, the patrons who have spent less money are being asked to bend over and grab their ankles because a director refuses to think outside the proscenium.

PBS was taping the opening-night performance for a future telecast (good luck editing around Obraztsova), so WashOp revived the hoary tradition of interpolating a star-studded gala sequence into Prince Orlofsky’s Act 2 party. (Subsequent audiences will get a substitute—10 minutes of choreographed Strauss waltzes. Don’t complain: The gala-heavy opening lasted four hours.) D.C.’s first-night glitterati and bureaucrati had the surreal experience of seeing Supreme Court Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kennedy sit stiffly on overupholstered stage furniture to watch American Ballet Theatre principals Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel rip through a pas de deux and Domingo knock off a tango and a Viennese bonbon. The tenor then joined the enchanting young soprano Virginia Tola in a duet from El Gato Montes, which, sadly, proved to be the most thrillingly sung, most naturally and luminously acted point in the evening.

The strong work of the chorus and orchestra, fortunately, should remain a constant, gala or no. Heinz Fricke, who can be a less-than-thrilling podium presence, seems truly engaged here. He doesn’t go in for the breathless hesitations or expressive nudgings that have become a tradition in performances of Strauss’ music. Instead, he treats most of the score with relaxed geniality, revving up the pulse (and, surprisingly for him, the volume) when circumstances call for it.

In fact, the production is more consistently satisfying to listen to than to watch. Which raises a question: How is a show that’s over the top even for DARCon going to squeeze itself onto the small screen? And what kind of commercial for WashOp is a telecast of this Fledermaus going to be? Opera—and even “almost opera”—already takes enough crap for being extravagant, irrelevant, and just plain loopy. The only thing that upcoming PBS broadcast would seem good for is hanging a “Kick me” sign on its back. CP