on 25 August 2010
Live 1983 performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
Reasonably good stereo. The singing of the soloists is generally well caught, the orchestra and chorus slightly less so. Some dialogue fades occasionally, but that may be due to the performers as much as the sound pick-up.
Gabriel von Eisenstein, a prosperous Viennese gentlemen with a roving eye - Hermann Prey (baritone)
Rosalinde, his wife - Tiri Te Kanawa (soprano)
Alfred, Rosalinde's would-be lover - Dennis O'Neill (tenor)
Adele, Rosalinde's maid - Hildegarde Heichele (soprano)
Dr. Falke, Eisenstein's good friend but also the victim of one of his practical jokes - Benjamin Luxon (baritone)Herr Frank, Governor of the City Prison - Michael Langdon (baritone)
Prince Orlowsky, a jaded and bored visiting aristocrat - Doris Soffel (mezzo-soprano)
Dr. Blind, Eisenstein's lawyer - Paul Crook (tenor)
Ida, Adele's sister - Ingrid Baier (speaker)
Frosch, a jailer - Josef Meinrad (speaker)
Placido Domingo with the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Covent Garden.
The lyrics are sung in a German not heavily burdened with Viennese lilt. Spoken dialogue veers wildly from one language to another.
SETS AND COSTUMES:
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is a very large theater with a big stage. The settings are of necessity of large scale. This makes Eisenstein's residence, which ought to be the well-appointed townhouse of a prosperous but nevertheless middle-class Viennese banker who keeps only a single servant, seem out of scale. The ballroom set for the second act and the jail in the third are serviceable. The costumes are generic, late 19th Century, but attractive and appropriate.
Overall, the stage blocking is quite traditional, even sensible, leading one to make wild speculations about the director having actually read the libretto before staging the piece, improbable as that seems. The decision to sing in German and speak the dialogue in polyglot form is a questionable one, probably deserving, I imagine, about equal quantities of praise and disdain.
The roots of Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus" stretch back to an 1851 German farce by Robert Benedix, "Die Gefängnis" ("The Prison"). In 1872, that admirable pair of hacks, Meilhac and Halévy, cobblers of libretti for both Offenbach and Bizet, converted the old German play into a French vaudeville called "Le réveillon" ("The Revel" or perhaps "The Christmas Eve Party"). In 1873-4, the French text was re-translated back into German for Strauss to set to music, but with all references to Christmas carefully expunged as a sop to respectable Viennese sensibilities. Oddly enough, the one-time Christmas Eve tale that premiered not far away from Easter in 1874 has taken firm root in Austria and elsewhere as a New Year's Eve entertainment.
If there exists a poor sound recording of "Die Fledermaus," I have never encountered it. Each major recording has its unique merits and its champions. Choosing the best among them is simply an exercise in expressing personal taste. "Chacun," as we are wisely advised, "à son goût." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all the DVD outings of "Die Fledermaus" (and especially not for two recent outright horrors from Salzburg and Glyndebourne, respectively.) Let me now hasten to allay fears by assuring you that this DVD "Fledermaus" is a good one. Many, including the Good Grey Gramophone Magazine, regard it as a very, very good one.
The cast is a generally sound one, and everyone (but Heichele) seems to be having an infectiously good time, especially Domingo, conducting in the pit. They are OK, but neither Te Kanawa nor Heichele would be my first choice for Rosalinde and Adele, respectively (nor, indeed, my twenty-first choice, if it came to that.) Hermann Prey is a sprightly Eisenstein, although perhaps a bit too old and stolid-looking to make Eisenstein's shenanigans entirely convincing. Eisenstein is a low-lying tenor part or a high-flying baritone role. I prefer a character tenor as Eisenstein, especially in Act II where he will be the only tenor voice. Dennis O'Neill sings pretty well as Alfred, here translated into Alfredo. Benjamin Luxon, oddly enough for an operatic baritone, is adequate while singing but notably better in speaking the dialogue. Doris Soffel, is a tall, splendidly epicene figure as Prince Orlowsky. Soffel, a very fine and well-known mezzo-soprano, here sounds very soprano-ish. Had I been given the choice, I'd have cast her as Adele and cast Heichele, if I had to use her at all, as Orlowsky.
While the performance is enjoyable enough the first time through, there are problems that emerge on subsequent viewings. The choice of having characters speak in different languages to one another--Te Kanawa in English to Dr. Falke but in German to Eisenstein and Adele, for instance--gets real tired real fast. The part of Alfred was intended for a Viennese tenor--imagine the young Richard Tauber. Strauss wrote appropriately Viennese music for him. Performance tradition, however, has turned Alfred into a caricature of an Italian tenor, Alfredo, and interpolated all kinds of tags and snatches from Puccini and Verdi. Here, they have gone one step further and made him speak in Italian--hardly the native tongue of a Dennis O'Neill, I fancy. It's a wearisome conceit. (When they extend the idea to make Eisenstein emulate Wotan when he bids "farewell" to Rosalinde, it's really just too much!) Even more wearisome is the "gala" in which outside performers offer a mixed bag of turns during Orlowsky's ball ... amusing once, increasingly tedious thereafter.
Finally, there is the matter of Domingo's conducting. The Good Grey Gramophone calls it "stiff." Since the Royal Opera House Orchestra is manifestly not a Viennese band, I'll give Domingo a pass on that point. On the other hand, he seems to me to be a little over-indulgent on making comedic points at cost to the essential snap and crackle of Strauss' champagne-soaked score.
Compared to the overall enjoyability of the show, my negative comments count as relatively minor. You can certainly do worse--much worse--than acquire this particular version of "Die Fledermaus."