La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Spotlight on La chauve-souris

by Joseph So

The quintessential Viennese bon-bon, Die Fledermaus is the most popular operetta in the world. Based on statistics maintained by Operabase, it received a total of 285 performances worldwide the last five seasons. This makes it the 15th most frequently performed opera. It caught the fancy of the Viennese public immediately at its premiere in 1874 and quickly established itself as the operetta of choice for festive occasions like Christmas and New Year. Some opera companies would splurge and expand the party scene to include surprise guests – famous singers, ballet dancers, comedians, even politicians. The spoken dialogues are frequently modified to include local and topical references. To ensure maximum impact, it’s often performed in translation in non-German-speaking countries.  

Tenor Marc Hervieux is Eisenstein in La chauve-souris for Montreal Opera (Photo: OdeM)

Die Fledermaus was the first operetta to break through the opera-operetta barrier - none other than the great Gustav Mahler gave it his seal of approval by including it in the Hamburg Opera season. A story about the shenanigans of the Viennese bourgeoisie, it treats essentially weighty subjects the likes of marital infidelity, impersonation, revenge, incarceration, and alcoholism with light-hearted frivolity. The excuse is “Blame it on the champagne!” and all is forgiven in the end – well, it only happens in opera!  Today, directors are fond of giving Die Fledermaus the “concept treatment.”  The most notorious was the Hans Neuenfels’ 2001 Salzburg production that led to major booing.  When done right, an updating can work. A much better received Christopher Alden production for the COC time-shifted it to the 1920’s, with strong elements of Freud, psychoanalysis, the subconscious, and even Fascism thrown in for good measure. Opera de Montreal’s Die Fledermaus, originally from Opera Australia, is resituated to Montreal in the 1930’s, promising “chic Westmount mansions, nightclubs, and a surprise appearance by a star.”  It features an all-Canadian cast well known to Montreal audiences, led by tenor Marc Hervieux.  

Given its effervescent score and great melodies, Die Fledermaus is a rewarding opera for singers. Both tenors and baritones claim Eisenstein as their property. Either way, this role demands great singing and acting. Rosalinde is usually sung by a full lyric and occasionally by a dramatic soprano. Her Csardas is a real showstopper. The maid Adele is Strauss’ gift to the coloratura, her delightful Laughing Song a highlight. The antics of the tenor Alfred serenading Rosalinde with snippets of famous arias always bring the house down. Prince Orlofsky is a great trouser role. Dr. Falke’s moment in the sun is his “Bruderlein und Schwesterlein,” a warm and fuzzy “feel good” moment. Die Fledermaus may not be very profound, but you’ll leave the opera house smiling.

Selected Discography

Audio Die Fledermaus is unquestionably the most recorded of all operettas. Generally speaking, the most memorable ones are from the 1950’s to the late 1980’s. A 1950 mono set on Decca has conductor Clemens Krauss with Julius Patzak, Hilde Gueden, Anton Dermota, and Wilma Lipp – still in the catalogue after 62 years!  In 1955, EMI executive Walter Legg produced a vehicle for his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Rosalinde, conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Nicolai Gedda as a tenor Eisenstein and Rita Streich as Adele. Gedda went on to record it again in 1971 for Willie Boskovsky leading the Vienna Symphony on EMI.  In 1960, Decca recorded Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Waldemar Kmentt, Hilde Güden, and the famous Orlofsky of Regina Resnik. The most memorable feature of this set is the Act Two Party with a huge cast of mostly Decca artists including Renata Tebaldi singing the Vilja Lied and Birgit Nilsson warbling “I could have danced all night” – priceless!  And let’s not forget that grand master of Viennese style, Carlos Kleiber (1976) leading the Munich forces and a magnificent cast of Hermann Prey, Julia Varady, Lucia Popp, Rene Kollo, and Bernd Weikl (DG). 

Video The 1983 live performance from Covent Garden with Placido Domingo conducting a fine cast including Hermann Prey (Eisenstein) and Kiri Te Kanawa in one of her best roles as Rosalinde remains popular today. Also memorable is Karl Bohm (1974) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with Eberhard Wachter as a baritone Eisenstein and Gundula Janowitz as Rosalinde. The great Wagnerian tenor Wolfgang Windgassen, past his prime, sang Orlofsky (DG). The 1986 Munich performance has Kleiber in magnificent form and a beautiful production but an uneven cast – Eberhard Wächter in poor voice as Eisenstein paired with a fine Rosalinde in Pamela Coburn (DG). The Metropolitan telecast in the same year had Jeffrey Tate conducting Håkan Hagegård and Kiri Te Kanawa as the upstairs couple, and the delightful Judith Blegen as Adele. This video also captured the Orlofsky of the late great mezzo Tatiana Troyanos.  Fans of Dame Joan Sutherland will want her cameo farewell appearance in the 1990 Covent Garden performance, with just a so-so cast conducted by Richard Bonynge (Arthaus). The last few years have not been kind to this opera – forget the 2001 Hans Neuenfels production for Salzburg unless you have a morbid fascination for a grotesque concept staging (Arthaus). Much preferable is the 2004 Glyndebourne production with Thomas Allen and Pamela Armstrong (Opus Arte). 

> Die Fledermaus at Opera de Montréal, January 26, 29, 31, and February 2, 2013.

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