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TWO FLEDERMICE (Covent Garden, London & Salzburg Festival)

Operetta in three acts
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Libretto: KARL HAFFNER and RICHARD GENEE based on L E REVEILLON by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy after Roderich Benedix's DAS GEFANGNIS English version by JOHN MORTIMER (Sung in English)

Gabriel von Eisenstein LOUIS OTEY
Colonel Frank (Prison Governor) ERIC GARRETT
Frosch (The Jailer) JOHN SESSIONS

ROH Chorus & Orchestra/ Richard Bonynge
Director John Cox

Arthaus DVD 100 134 []



Operetta in three acts
Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival

Gabriel van Eisenstein - CHRISTOPH HOMBERGER
Dr. Falke - OLAF BAR
Prinz Orlofsky - DAUID MOSS

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg & Arnold Schonberg Chorus/MARC MINKOWSKI
Newly adapted libretto & Stage director HANS NEUENFELS
Stage design and costumes REINHARD VON DER TANNEN
Directed for DVD by DON KENT

Arthaus 100 340 [16:9 170 mins]


These two versions of Die Fledermaus make as educative and illuminating a pairing about the state of opera around the turn of the century as you could find and Arthaus might do well to market them as a double?

Both are records of unique "occasions" and are complementary - though some would say they are mutually uncomplimentary!

The robust, traditionally lavish Royal Opera House version (John Cox, 1977) was revived and televised for the beloved (in London as in Australia) Dame Joan Sutherland's gala farewell performance (31 December 1990). It is a well regarded and affectionately remembered production (q.v. 'a glorious, unforgettable evening of music-making for which the word "glittering" might have been invented' Gary S. Dalkin, Amazon.co.uk Review) but for years I have had reservations about this most popular of operettas, a rather dim story usually saved by being fleshed out with special extras, especially the gaoler's spoken entracte in stand-up comic vein before the last Act, and refreshed with party pieces for the bored Prince Orlofsky. I confess to having been bored by this operetta myself once again for much of the time, least so during those high spots.

Sung in English, with lots of topical jokes, and conducted by Sutherland's mentor and husband Richard Bonynge, Judith Howarth (Adele) and the brilliant counter-tenor Jochen Kowalski as Prince Orlofsky took the honours in Die Fledermaus at Covent Garden. John Sessions was provocative and extremely funny as the gaoler Frosch. The party, long though it was, became a top-line gala concert, showcasing Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne supporting the great lady, beloved in London as in Australia, in a stupendous green dress befitting La Stupenda. Jeremy Isaacs (he of the 'troubles' at Covent Garden) gave a graceful speech and due note was taken of Prime Minister John Major and 'dear Norma' (author of Joan Sutherland (Little, Brown, 1994) in the VIP box; the filming was excellent and though the format is 4:3 you were able to feel yourself there, without the high price of tickets for that Night of Nights. (For a more stimulating Johann Strauss operetta, allow Musical Pointers to encourage you to explore the splendid Zurich DVD of Simplicius.)

We took the Cox/ROH Fledermaus slowly, and in tandem with the Neuenfels version for the Salzburg Festival - a major scandal, which led to court proceedings. People who felt they had parted with their money under false pretences took legal advice, having believed that they were going to see Strauss's charming operetta, with all the tunes they knew, beautifully sung as they had a right to expect at Salzburg's ticket prices. I doubt if there is any other DVD in which the producers fail to disguise, indeed relish, the booing which made good competition with applause throughout.

I found myself repelled, and yet fascinated and unable to be bored, by the notorious Neuenfels Fledermaus, since when that hardy annual can never be the same again. Musically it is fairly intact, the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg playing stylishly for Minkowski, who takes various indignities (e.g. the present of a stuffed canary) in his stride. But singers as famous as Olaf Bär appear vocally constrained by the circumstances, and bel canto was not for this night. Everything pretty was eliminated, costumes often bizarrely ugly, and many of the most popular melodies were given as caricature, especially by the revolting, raucous, dreadlocked junkie Orloff, a Prince who had gone down the road of drugs abuse, the role taken with awesome brilliance and anarchic destructiveness by David Moss, an American pop star who chokes and splutters his way through the songs in a mixture of high falsetto, growls and shrieks.

It is all heavily politicised, and often obscure beyond easy deciphering, but no doubt all the peculiarities are capable of explanation and, who knows, of spawning academic theses.

For me it held the attention as might a nature programme on TV, one of those in which you watch, appalled, whilst a boa constrictor swallows whole an animal which looks too large to devour, or another in which predatory lions strip a carcase to the bone!

At this point, I hand over to Alexa Woolf, who has a penchant for analysing the social implications of current operatic and music-theatre production.

2001: "Lucky is he who forgets"? Discussing Die Fledermaus are Mark Minkowski, Reinhard von der Thannen (second and third from left), Gerard Mortier and Hans Neuenfels (second and first from right). Photo: Mara Eggert


A Fledermaus capable of toppling a cultural edifice. Neuenfels has re-invented a well-known and almost ossified work with staggering audacity. One could not easily have imagined so many layers to exist within this operetta.

It is an astonishing achievement to turn this lighthearted operetta into a fierce and crusading morality play. Hans Neuenfels reveals the dirty underside of a highly polished coin. Harmless seeming sentimentality, banality and a playful acceptance of deceit are turned on their heads. The audience is invited to examine their/our easy-going and pleasurable complicity with questionable sets of moral values.

Neuenfels has shattered a tuneful and beguiling cultural prop and let amazing sights, insights and associations emerge through the cracks. Incest, anti-semitism, eugenics, nationalism, the cult of brotherhood at the expense of the outsider, poverty as an irritating intrusion, war with blood on ones hands, selfish and narrowminded mindsets , anarchy and a drug culture all make their appearance. It is no wonder that some of the audience found/find threatening this unexpected, and unexpectedly hazardous, encounter with razor sharp shards of cultural, social-political and historical allusions,many of them mediated by Elisabeth Trissenaar as a smiling Frosch.

This DVD is an important record of an intellectually groundbreaking and challenging staging. The musical performances are of a high standard, if somewhat unconventional in the case of David Moss as Prince Orlovsky whose raucous vocal acrobatics are thrilling, and to the point, in their intentional anti-beauty stance.

A totally riveting work, 10 stars in my book! A shot in the arm to rejuvenate a cultural asset and to help keep alive opera as a significant art form. No serious music theatre lover can afford to be without this DVD.

Alexa Woolf

From a comprehensive contemporary review of the original production describing what you will see, here is Eleonore Büning's found on the internet (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Aug 2001) :-

- - Hans Neuenfels' reworking of "Fledermaus" has already reaped plenty of abuse, with some enraged members of the audience even demanding their money back. And the irony is that Frosch (which means frog in German) now has more to croak about than ever before in his more than 100-year-old career. His largely unscheduled appearance begins in Act I with a lot of parading around and puffing himself up. Even before the trio "Wie rührt mich dies" (How much this touches me) he recites a poem by Gottfried Benn -- later followed by other examples of world-famous Austrian literature, from Karl Kraus to Hugo Ball. Frosch then sings or hums a song about two plums from Ottakring, presents the conductor, Marc Minkowski, with a stuffed canary and brings one of the characters an ice bucket so that he can wash his hands in innocence.

He also annoys both his fellow actors and the audience with puns only a 10-year-old could be proud of, then goes on to inform us that Arnold Schoenberg was a Jew and a "very very popular Austrian composer" like Johann Strauss. No mere mortal -- and certainly not Mortier -- could play such a part with such unshakable certainty, with so much irony-free sincerity and without ever losing that half-mischievous, half-innocent, sweet-little-girl look, to say nothing of the exemplary delivery, as Elisabeth Trissenaar does.

And so the "Fledermaus," that operetta to end all operettas and a sugary sweet but distorting mirror held up to the dead and buried Habsburgs, was spun out by this accumulation of excessively didactic spoken interludes to become an endurance test more than three hours long -- and at times insufferably boring. "Fledermaus" -- boring!

That is indeed hard to forgive. Even harder to bear, however, was the poor quality of the singing. Accustomed to scandal, Salzburg's seasoned visitors at first looked on contentedly as Frosch launched into one interminable academic discourse after another, and as two scruffy children tumbled onto the stage, clamoring for their parents' attention and wailing despairingly "Papapapa" and "Mamamama" as evidence of the decay of the bourgeois family in the age of expanding capitalism.

The audience sat still even when a physically imposing but excessively thin and reedy-voiced Alfred (Matthias Klink) tried not only to impress the silky-smooth Rosalinde (Elzbieta Szmytka) by adopting a supposedly Spanish accent in "Trinkmitmir-Sinkmitmir" (Drink with me -- Sink with me), but also began groping Adele the chambermaid (Malin Hartelius, giving forth bell-like coloraturas) under her skirts whenever "his" dovey-dovey melody was heard.

The audience was also willing to put up with the choir's obligatory fits of masturbation, accompanied by the rhythmic oom-pah-pah juddering of the music. They watched in silence as incest was committed on the marble slab of a grave, three Nazi thugs attacked an unfortunate intellectual (Dr. Blind, picturesquely sporting an Elton John wig) and the undead crawled forth from every nook and cranny in the Felsenreitschule stage, which designer Reinhard von der Thannen has masterfully converted into a coachmen's graveyard. They even tolerated the silly, garish lamp shade under which Gabriel von Eisenstein (sung by Christoph Homberger, the second, equally inadequate tenor) vanished after blustering in. The idyll came to a brutal end only when even the most tone-deaf of listeners could no longer ignore the desecration of this musical icon: during the much-loved and exceedingly flexible aria of Prince Orlofsky.

This prince has always been a decidedly shady character, a dubious, hybrid creature. Even for Strauss and his librettist Richard Genée he is half man (etiquette) and half beast (brutality), half male, half female trouser role, half young and half old. Countertenors like Jochen Kowalski and sonorous baritones like Rudolf Christ have sung the role with great success, each according to his taste.

But David Moss, the inimitable American vocal acrobat, is a horse of a different color. He launches into the aria with rattling gasps that culminate in a fit of choking, switches to a squeaking, high falsetto ("Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein"), only to plunge down again into the lowest, growling depths of his range ("Chacun à son gout"). Sighing like a vampire and shrieking like a hyena, he manages to break a taboo in the last place one would have expected. At the end of the aria, the audience went crazy. At the same time, Neuenfels has the chorus smash all the glass panes that were specially installed for this production in the dead eyes of the Felsenreitschule's stone theater boxes. The "Fledermaus" is dead, long live the night of broken glass.

All Neuenfels does (how "original," as Moss comments) is to take the title literally. His Vienna is the Gotham City of the Batman films, populated by cocaine-addicted, moonstruck vampires. Horror film sighs sound from offstage, punctuated by the theme music, borrowed from Franz Liszt, of war bulletins. To the strains of a polka, six youthful members of the Marco Santi Danse Ensemble perform an orgy of violence. After the night of nights, the chorus members lie as though dead in the ballroom. "L'amour, la mort, la mer, ma mère," Eisenstein calls to his murderous buddies.

And buried underneath the wreckage lies half of Carl Jung, all of Sigmund Freud, utopia and neurosis, cause and effect, and all the nightmares from the middle of the 20th century, when the great Neuenfels was still just little Hans. Motifs are reduced to fragments, as though in a dream or in one of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's panorama-like pictures. Associations intersect in simultaneous actions, and every character, even the neat little maid, has as many layers as an onion. And despite the production's anti-"Fledermaus" pretensions, it will stick in the memory like one of Brueghel's panoramas -- like the "Fledermaus" itself.

Under Minkowski's baton, the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg played with crisp rhythm and luxurious richness of tone, which was exactly as it should be. Even the overture was presented with all the necessary ambiguous lightness and without the superfluous assistance of gimmicky tempos, pregnant pauses and self-indulgent fermatas. In contrast, the singers, trapped in the corsets of their stereotyped roles, seemed to lack a certain freedom. Even Olaf Bär (the vengeful notary Falke) and Dale Duesing (the pleasure-seeking director Frank) have been known to sing with fuller voices and act with greater flexibility elsewhere
. © Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000
(Photos: AP)

© Peter Grahame Woolf