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Donald Pippin, Pocket Opera staying strong at 40

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From left, Jennifer Mitchell, Jordan Eldredge and Patricia Westley appear in Pocket Opera’s delightful “Die Fledermaus.” (Courtesy Nicolas Aliaga)
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As San Francisco’s Pocket Opera is about the conclude its 2016-17 season, the numbers are impressive: It’s the company’s 40th year headed by Donald Pippin, 91, who started it, has managed every aspect of it and remains in complete charge over the current production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.”

Looking frail but acting indefatigable, Pippin plays the piano for the entire length of the three-hour-long operetta, directs the Pocket Philharmonic, oversees the show which he cast, rehearsed and wrote (the English libretto). On Sunday at the Legion of Honor (and in its last performance July 23 in Palo Alto) everything is in English, except the title.

“The Bat,” a Viennese operetta and melodic global audience favorite, has not left the repertoire since its 1874 premiere. The simple, romantic, funny story is about the revenge of Falke (Jordan Eldredge) on his friend, Eisenstein (Martin Lewis), for tricking him in a situation where Falke ended up drunk in a bat costume.

The show’s strength — besides Pippin’s sparkling libretto, Nicolas Aliaga’s straightforward direction and Lisa Eldredge’s sumptuous costumes — is in the excellence of the three female leads.

Lindsay Roush, a powerful soprano, is Rosalinde, Eisenstein’s wife, who plays a masked, mysterious Hungarian countess, tempting her clueless, philandering husband to compromise himself.

Patricia Westley, a young soprano from New Zealand, is vocally-comically sensational as Adele, Rosalinde’s maid. (One of the stage director’s effective jokes is to have Adele instinctively mop up anything spilled, even when pretending to be a grand lady.)

Mary Rauh, a superb mezzo soprano, excels in the trouser role of Prince Orlofsky, shining in the second act, at the grand ball he is giving.

Among the men, Mason Gates stands out as Alfred, the amorous singer, in hot pursuit of Rosalinde, married or not, a woman involuntarily responding to snatches of famous tenor arias.

Pippin’s English libretto, true to the German original for singing but using a contemporary idiom, is part of his four-decade tradition of presenting opera in English with clear, witty text and supertitles. These have become the staple of companies both big and small, ranging from the San Diego Opera to the Aspen Music Festival.

Born in Zebulon, N.C., and educated at Harvard University, Pippin began his career as an accompanist at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York City.

He moved to San Francisco in 1952, and has been an integral part of The City’s artistic life since, from playing at the hungry i and Opus One in North Beach, through nearly two decades of a weekly chamber music series at the Old Spaghetti Factory, to his present-day fame as the creator of the small but mighty operatic institution.


REVIEW

Die Fledermaus
Presented by Pocket Opera
Where: Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: 8 p.m. July 23
Tickets: $42 to $45
Contact: (415) 972-8934, www.pocketopera.org

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