10 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Johann Strauß II – DIE FLEDERMAUS (A. Mikołaj, P.A. Edelmann, C. Reiss, R. Trost, N. Petrinsky; Capriccio C5167)

Johann Strauß II - DIE FLEDERMAUS (Capriccio C5167)

JOHANN STRAU II (1825 – 1899): Die Fledermaus—A. Mikołaj (Rosalinde), P.A. Edelmann (Gabriel von Eisenstein), C. Reiss (Adele), R. Trost (Alfred), N. Petrinsky (Prinz Orlofsky), S. Holeck (Gefängnisdirektor Frank), M. Turk (Dr. Falke), J. Sacher (Dr. Blind), S. Kallhammer (Ida); WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln; Friedrich Haider [Recorded in Sendesaal des Deutschlandfunks, Köln, 2 – 13 November 2011; Capriccio C5167; 2CD, 87:49; Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers; Complete recording of musical score with dialogue omitted]

Johann Strauß II’s Die Fledermaus can be one of the most delectable romps audiences will ever encounter in any of the world’s opera houses, especially those in Vienna, where there remains an operetta tradition stretching back to the Golden Age of Strauß, Lehár, and Kálmán. When performed without a modicum of legitimate Viennese spirit, it can also prove surprisingly, maddeningly dull. For the non-fluent listener, minutes of German dialogue in a complete performance can seem like hours, but both hybrid productions that offer musical numbers sung in the original German and dialogue in the local vernacular and performances that omit the dialogue altogether can also fall flat. One of the true joys of this new recording, a studio production by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, is that it succeeds as a vivacious, coherent performance of Die Fledermaus even without the dialogue. Though dialogue is easily dodged when listening to a CD recording, its loss can undermine the dramatic continuity of a performance of Die Fledermaus. In comparison with the great recordings of past generations, especially Herbert von Karajan’s legendary DECCA performance with Hilde Güden’s Viennese-as-Sachertorte Rosalinde, Regina Resnik’s no-nonsense Orlofsky, and the ‘guilty pleasure’ Gala Sequence [the listener who does not respond with glee to Birgit Nilsson’s charmingly stentorian ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and Giulietta Simionato’s and Ettore Bastianini’s ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ probably should not waste time with Die Fledermaus at all], Capriccio’s performance is not sumptuously sung, but it ultimately proves remarkably satisfactory—more so, in fact, than a number of recordings featuring more famous casts.

Much of the success of this performance of Die Fledermaus is thanks to the spirited singing and playing of the WDR Rundfunkchor and Rundfunkorchester. Impersonating the guests at Orlofsky’s ball, the choristers sing with gusto, relishing every opportunity to comment on—and contribute to—the general confusion. Their brief rent-a-crowd dins as ebullient revelers—abetted by an arsenal of cleverly-managed sound effects (footsteps, clinking glasses, and the like) and a clean acoustic—conjure a theatrical atmosphere and contribute enormously to the sparkle of Act Two. Some of the most enjoyable musical discoveries in recent years have been radio performances of a surprisingly vast repertoire that have emerged from WDR’s archives, and these performances invariably preserve unexpectedly idiomatic playing by the Rundfunkorchester: a performance like the 1951 account of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera conducted by Fritz Busch, though sung in German, is played with an impressive dose of Italianate fervor. In Die Fledermaus, the Rundfunkorchester players are in something nearer to natural territory, but the excellence of their playing is no less admirable for being typical of the Orchestra’s endeavors. The instrumentalists make the most of every opportunity granted by Strauß’s score, and the energy with which they play the familiar melodies lends the performance an extra dollop of froth. Friedrich Haider’s previous recording of Die Fledermaus was a vehicle for one of Edita Gruberová’s several recorded accounts of Adele, and it substituted a bizarre narration spoken by Frosch for the dialogue. The performances that produced that recording, which has moments of brilliance, were an apt rehearsal for this recording: the firm rhythmic profile of his earlier performance is bettered in the Capriccio recording, and the momentum that Maestro Haider’s conducting provides does much to fill in the dramatic blanks left by the absence of the dialogue.

The names of German soprano Sabine Kallhammer, Viennese baritone Sebastian Holecek, Croatian baritone Miljenko Turk, and German tenor Jürgen Sacher may not be familiar to many listeners, but they prove more successful Fledermaus players than many of their more illustrious rivals. Ms. Kallhammer is a charming Ida: the only regret that her singing inspires is that she does not have more to do. Mr. Holecek’s Frank percolates through the performance like a stout Viennese coffee, and when anything genuinely comedic happens it is usually he who has instigated it. He also snores like a champion, and his extravagantly-trilled r’s in accompaniment of Adele’s couplets in Act Three are great fun. Mr. Turk is a Falke of wit and slightly sinister humor, and the incisiveness of his singing in ‘Komm mit mir zum Souper’ suggests that he has quite a memorable retaliatory evening in store for his friend Eisenstein. Mr. Sacher is a delightfully bumbling Blind, sounding almost like a holdover from a bel canto comedy of errors. All four artists sing well and strive to be amusing without seeming foolish.

Viennese mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky is an enthusiastic but unmistakably feminine Orlofsky. Her singing of ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ is slightly blowsy, sounding as though she is attempting to rein in the plushness of her timbre in order to achieve a more masculine tone, but the rôle’s top A-flats hold no terrors for her. There is a certain regal authority in her singing, and she holds her own impressively in the frenzied ensemble that ends Act Two. There are flickers of strain when she joins Rosalinde and Adele on the top line of that ensemble, which takes her to top B, but she copes honorably with what is, in terms of its musical demands, an ungainly part.

The central ‘love triangle’ of Die Fledermaus—Rosalinde, her husband Eisenstein, and her lover Alfred—is in this performance a gratifyingly equilateral figure. Son of the celebrated bass Otto Edelmann, baritone Paul Armin Edelmann was to the idiomatic Viennese manner born, and his Eisenstein has some of the same boorish charm of his father’s Baron Ochs. There is a sharp edge to Mr. Edelmann’s characterization of Eisenstein, however: the actions and counteractions of this Eisenstein and Falke are far more serious—and potentially ruinous—than mere overgrown-frat-boy pranks. There is also an element of emotional sincerity in Mr. Edelmann’s performance that makes his Eisenstein unusually sympathetic, especially in the operetta’s penultimate number, the trio with Rosalinde and Alfred, ‘Ich steh’ voll Zagen.’ Musically, though the tessitura of the part occasionally troubles him, Mr. Edelmann sings well, combining insinuatingly with Rosalinde in an entertaining account of ‘Dieser Anstand, so manierlich’ and producing some wonderfully ringing top notes. Tenor Rainer Trost has a leaner timbre than is often heard in Alfred’s music, especially in larger opera houses, but what a superb voice it is! Mr. Trost’s Alfred is audibly a man whose guiding motivation is love, not lust: this Alfred’s ardent singing makes it apparent that he is playing for keeps. His opening serenade, ‘Täubchen, das entflattert ist,’ is poetically phrased, the top As raptly romantic. The beauty and security of Mr. Trost’s voice leave nothing to be desired, here or in any bar of Alfred’s music. His occasional flights into a perfectly-supported falsetto are beguiling, and he is a thoroughly convincing lover. In Act Three, though, it is impossible not to regret that the omission of the dialogue deprives this gossamer-voiced Alfred of the opportunity to indulge in the traditional ego-caressing recital of snippets from operatic fare. Rosalinde, the woman whose affections and machinations make these fellows rivals, is commandingly sung by Polish soprano Aga Mikołaj. In Die Fledermaus, as in many of Strauß’s operettas, the heroine’s music is so melodious as to cause it to seem an easier sing than it is: Rosalinde’s music is, in fact, quite challenging, but Ms. Mikołaj mostly makes easy going of it. The foremost test of any Rosalinde is her Csárdás, ‘Klänge der Heimat,’ and Ms. Mikołaj passes with flying colors. She handles the Frischka with aplomb, never smearing the divisions, and she sustains the long trills well. She punches out the top D that closes the number with greater freedom than what many Rosalindes can summon, and on the whole she is an uncommonly well-qualified Rosalinde. If there is anything lacking in her performance, it is an immediately recognizable shimmer of ‘star quality.’

It is perhaps unusual for an Adele to receive top billing in a recording of Die Fledermaus, but Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, a rising star of the Wiener Staatsoper, is marketed as the primary attraction of this performance; and, to a large extent, so she proves to be. Without interpolations, the tessiture of Adele’s and Rosalinde’s parts are virtually identical, so the differentiation between the two ladies is generally accomplished by casting a lyric coloratura soprano as Adele and a darker, heavier voice as Rosalinde. Ms. Reiss sounds as though she might well have been given a crack at Rosalinde, but she is a suitably fiery Adele. This social-climbing chambermaid seems just grand enough to have a real shot at making a career on the stage, and she is a fetchingly conspiratorial presence in Act One, not least in her brief duettino with Rosalinde, ‘Ach, ich darf nicht hin zu ihr.’ Her singing of ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ in Act Two establishes her as the belle of Orlofsky’s ball, her execution of coloratura, staccati, and the long-held top C commandeering attention. In Act Three, her delivery of Adele’s couplets, ‘Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande,’ is exemplary, a slight thinness of tone around the top of the staff not affecting her bright top D. Perhaps following the example of her colleagues, Ms. Reiss creates an Adele who is less coquettish and obviously selfish than many portrayals of the rôle: she seems like a good-hearted girl with big dreams but a very perceptive one who understands—and knows how to manipulate—the chauvinistic society of which she is a part. Vocally, Ms. Reiss is a more substantial Adele than those in the vein of Adele Kern, Wilma Lipp, and Renate Holm, but she maintains freshness and lightness of tone. Hers is an accomplished performance that suggests great promise.

Even without the dialogue, this recording offers a truer experience of Strauß’s evergreen score than many of its rivals in the Fledermaus discography. There are passages in this performance in which the joy is rather muted, but approaching the piece with an air of maturity is not inappropriate. For all its humor, there are in Fledermaus—as in Così fan tutte—real dangers of people getting hurt, of lives being uprooted and relationships destroyed. Nonetheless, set to Strauß’s rollicking waltz and polka tunes, it all seems as inconsequential as the weather forecast for some distant locale. There are sunlight and warmth aplenty in this performance, however, and—most importantly—a glimpse of the glory days of Viennese operetta that, like so many treasured aspects of the Arts, seem ever further in the past.