Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (but if it’s given in English, why not The Bat? Does that somehow sound too unglamorous?) is not only the greatest operetta ever composed, as everyone agrees, but also, in my view, a great work, to be ranked with the finest comedies in any genre. That is, beneath its featherbrained hedonism there is a core of seriousness, conveyed as usual by Strauss in glittering music that never lets you forget that all good things come to an end, usually sooner than you expect.
But that is only part of its claim to an exalted status that the term ‘operetta’ seems to deny. As in many great comedies, several of the characters spend much of the time in disguise, and sing some of their most telling music when they are pretending to be someone else. The climax of that is Rosalinde’s Czardas, a plangent piece that expresses as well as anything nostalgia for a homeland which in her case she has probably never even visited, before going off giddily into cascades of coloratura.
As in Così fan tutte, a far greater work of course but one that develops along similar lines, the characters lose their sense of identity and become unsure which are their genuine feelings and which their fake ones. Who would ever guess that Ferrando, in the climactic duet with Fiordiligi in Act II of Mozart’s masterpiece, is only pretending to be in love with her? — or is that all? I suspect that everyone, even the greatest artist, gets to a point where their bewilderment about the nature of emotion, the possibility of making sure which are one’s sincerest feelings and which are subtly spurious, overwhelms them and they resort to a brusque gesture of dismissal of the whole issue: the lovers at the end of Così laughably resolve to rule their lives henceforth by Reason, as if they or anyone could; while the whole bunch of disguised deceivers in Die Fledermaus blame all their misdemeanours on champagne.
Can there be a production of Fledermaus which copes with these matters without being impossibly heavy-handed? It’s hard to say; all I can state is that I have never seen an even remotely satisfactory production, one which does justice to the score’s intoxicating playfulness and at the same time hints, but not too heavily, at what that conceals. Certainly the new production at ENO by Christopher Alden doesn’t get close. He has, naturally, his own agenda of subtexts galore, but they remain obscure and often just collide with the music, to which he seems not to have listened. Alden followed, I would guess, a line of association ‘Fledermaus 1874…market crash 1873…champagne to drown sorrows…fin de siècle coming up…Sezession, Klimt, Schiele, Otto Wagner…Freud on the horizon’ and off he went with a crack in Rosalinde’s 19th-century bedroom wall opening up to the Art Deco ballroom beyond, hysteria, first Rosalinde and then, an extreme and very tiresome case, Prince Orlofsky, everyone living in a private fantasy world, so that Rosalinde sings her Czardas only to a hyperactive Orlofsky; no dancing, no added waltz or polka, let alone a few party turns.
So not much fun, though the translation, by Daniel Dooner and Stephen Lawless, is lively and witty; but I wish they’d checked it with someone literate, so they could have avoided the numbing solecisms of the chorus’s singing ‘What a great pleasure for we’ and later ‘I said to she’. The cast were mainly poor at projecting spoken dialogue, of which there is a fair amount, so that it was only the sung parts that were easily intelligible, thanks to surtitles.
Dramatically, then, not a success. I enjoyed the musical side of things a great deal more, finding Eun Sun Kim’s conducting idiomatic, though the orchestra could do with sounding richer. Kim injected rubato while maintaining precision, a tricky act. The singers are variable, with Rhian Lois’s Adele the star by some way. She upstaged her mistress, sung by Julia Sporsén, who has a sense of fun but none of the essential lower notes. Richard Burkhard’s Dr Falke, mostly dressed as a giant bat, was the most interesting male singer-actor, Tom Randle is still a reliable Eisenstein. Fledermäuse don’t come along often, so I’d recommend seeing this for all its inadequacies.
Though it is no part of my brief, I can’t resist mentioning the concert that I attended at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 2 October. Igor Levit, a Russo–German pianist in his mid-20s, played Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas so wonderfully that I feel like saying they were perfect — as they are in his debut recording on Sony. He exacted from his audience a concentration equal to his own, and I can’t imagine that anyone who was there will ever forget it, any more than one could forget Sviatoslav Richter’s greatest concerts.
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