Sunday, 13 October 2013
Been flapping pipistrelle-like to chatter about town all week, from the Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge on Sunday to the City Lit Monday and Tuesday, the London Coliseum on Wednesday and Western House, BBC outpost behind Langham Place, on Friday. Plus Kew on Thursday not to talk but to be talked to by an enthusiastic mycologist on Thursday, but that's for another entry.
Not at all sure I would have gone to see Christopher Alden's largely slated production of Die Fledermaus at English National Opera had I not been included in the latest of Christopher Cook's tight little pre-performance packages before the show, turned as before into the podcast you can listen to here (second entry down). It was better than I'd anticipated, but still not as good as I would have liked. Yet again a heavy-hearted directorial hand sinks a maybe unstageable operetta gaiety.
I determined not to see it before I spoke, hoping to keep the door open on the possibility of something good stagewise after Richard Jones's self-confessed failure of an ENO predecessor and Harry Kupfer's lift-dominated Komische Oper production, which we left halfway through on my birthday back in 1996.
It all works beautifully on the recording which was my first boxed-set purchase in my early teens, Boskovsky's Vienna sparkler with a sardonic Falke from Fischer-Dieskau, Gedda's foppish Eisenstein, experienced Viennese bass buffo Walter Berry, the classy Anneliese Rothenberger's Rosalinde and - peerless, surely - Brigitte Fassbaender's dyke-of-delight Orlofsky. Plus all dialogue masterfully directed by Otto Schenk, whom we last saw in his cups as Lady Bracknell in Vienna's Leopoldstadt Theatre for an all-male production of Bunbury, oder wie wichtig ist es Ernst zu sein and who plays Frosch as a very convincing drunk on the recording.
I snapped the box cover and put the picture up when marking the death of Rothenberger at the age of 85, but no harm in repeating it here as I took it along as a kind of talisman to the talk. Of which more briefly later. The show? Well, Alden C, like his brother, is no stranger to nightmare scenarios - the schoolyard one applied to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps the most successful 'rewrite' I've seen - and this was Rosalinde's as set up in the overture and controlled throughout by Dr Falke as Freud (Richard Burkhard, one of the better voices on display, pictured below in the first of Robert Workman's images).
A production should be clear in the telling and not need explaining, but the excellent cover Adele, Clare Eggington, and the Frosch, Austrian actor Jan Pohl, who joined us along with assistant conductor and repetiteur Murray Hipkin enriched our understanding by talking of the three eras: repressed 19th century, unconscious-released Freudian early 20th and totalitarian-nightmare 30s.
Problem? It ain't funny, really, ever. I laughed a bit at some of the wit in the translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner, which is much better than many critics have declared (and infinitely better than Pountney's appalling, antique job for the Fidelio). Although I lost the will to live - maybe the point - soon into the party act, I did laugh nervously when Adele slapped Eisenstein about as she worked her way down the staircase with her Laughing Song.
Rhian Lois, though not exactly possessed of a voice you'd like to hear on a recording, is a fabulous musician, hits all the top notes - as had Clare in her two numbers for the talk - and holds her poise throughout. Not so Tom Randle's Eisenstein, who seems lost throughout - though at least shows us what good physical shape he's in when the errant husband strips off to mirror lover Alfred in the reconciliation. And Edgaras Montvidas probably gave the classiest singing of the evening running through a rep which featured, of course, Fidelio and Madama Butterfly, the operas surrounding this one at ENO. Suitably sexy, too, in an offbeat, parodied kinda way.
Poor Julia Sporsén, a fine Julietta last season, didn't do too well with Rosalinde's ought-to-be creamy upper register; surely she's a mezzo? Jennifer Holloway looked good as Orlofsky but had too many embarrassing manic-depressive routines. Even Andrew Shore didn't carry off his humour too successfully as transvestite prison governor Frank - pictured here with Holloway -
and the conducting from Eun Sim Kim was much zestier than I'd been led to believe but lacked the true Viennese lilt. As usual. Lovely wacky party costumes by Constance Hoffman,
especially striking when the entire group of decadents sits on a vast prison bench in the production's main twist, stripping away the curtains to show the bleak reality of 1930s Germany.
But did Alden really have to make Pohl do so many weird epileptic routines alongside the usual Nazi-officer cliches? Sorry: I really can't say you should go as I did in the case of the Fidelio, worth it in several coups which don't really happen here. And is there anything in the music which prompts the darkness? Possibly only in the Act 3 Melodrama for Frank's return to his prison; elsewhere not at all. In his little talk demo, Hipkin pointed out that when we first hear the plaintive oboe tune in the Overture, so beautifully decorated in its reprise, we have no idea it's the mock-sadness of Rosalinde in the Act One Trio. He also revealed to me how all three strains of Alfred's Drinking Song are popular 3/4 dances, from quasi-minuet with strong first beat to Ländler and the true Viennese sugariness in 'Glücklich ist, wer vergisst' (and this kind should always have a rush up to the second beat if I understand correctly).
One of many interesting points I dug out for my intro, based on very little deep knowledge of Strauss family history, comes from a rather academically jargonsome article in an excellent special edition of the Österreichische MUSIKZEITschrift by Professor Moritz Csáky, Chair of Austrian History at Graz University:
Some listeners in the already well-educated bourgeois audience were apparently able to recognize the concealed borrowing in the libretto of Die Fledermaus...from Baldasar Gracian's Oracolo manual, recently translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer: 'Happy he who forgets what can no longer be changed'. As Hermann Bahr [Viennese playwright whom R Strauss originally asked to be the librettist for Intermezzo] and others have stressed, Schopenhauer's works enjoyed a secure place in every bourgeois library 'in which, under the pressure of fashion, every Viennese read Schopenhauer, but not without always listening to a waltz at the same time'.
Other strange but true facts:
Strauss was pulled into the Viennese operetta picture because Offenbach was getting so expensive. First wife Jetty drove him to it because stage works brought royalties and the dance music which all three Strauss brothers wrote for the court balls did not.
I knew he conducted the first ever public performance of a work by Tchaikovsky, the Characteristic Dances, at Pavlovsk in 1865, but not that he gave the Viennese premiere of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture.
How are these statistics? At Boston's International Peace Jubilee 20,000 singers, 10,000 orchestral musicians and 100 sub conductors tackled waltz arrangements with choral additions.
Mahler's conducting of Die Fledermaus in 1897, his first year as chief conductor of the Vienna Hofoper, won a personal message of congratulations by the Waltz King, then celebrating 50 years of composing. Mahler thought Strauss waltzes brought 'large bills and small change' - unlike Brahms and Wagner, who both adored them - but in 1899 upbraided a tenor who sniffed at having to play the role of Eisenstein thus:
An operetta is simply a small and gay opera, and many classical works come under this heading. The fact that mediocre compositions have been given this title recently makes no difference. Johann Strauss II's work surpasses them in every way, notable in its excellent musical diction, and that is why the administration has not hesitated to include it in its repertoire.
I found what I believe to be many interesting connections, too, in the Sunday study day on 'Mahler and opera', starting with Suppé, whose Die schöne Galathee overture has a gorgeous waltz theme quoted, I believe, towards the end of Das Lied von der Erde's great 'Abschied'. It's very likely the young Mahler conducted the 'mythological operetta' in his first conducting post at the spa town of Hall in the summer of 1881, though we don't know the works he did conduct (the intendant had it in his repertoire). I didn't know Die Drei Pintos, Weber's very incomplete opera for which Mahler composed so much wonderful music; now I do and I want the old recording with Prey and the divine Lucia Popp.
I did know about Mahler's love for The Merry Widow and I had my own connections to make between Verdi, Wagner and the Eighth Symphony before moving on to Mahler's influence on Britten: the Fifth Symphony's second movement and Grimes's pre-storm monologues, the Tenth and the epilogue of Death in Venice.
Back to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and my heroine the great Dame Jenni Murray on Friday morning to talk about Verdi just after his 200th birthday. Amused to arrive at Western House among crowds battling for glimpses of Robbie Williams - who escaped out the back - and, can you believe (crowds, I mean), for David Jason, who was going into the studio next to mine. I got three bites of the cherry: on Elisabetta 'I Will Survive' de Valois in Don Carlo, a heroine I wanted to add to the mix; on the Merry Wives of Falstaff; and on the great sopranos in Verdi today (a huge gap of not-great-enough between Freni and now - well, listen: it's on this Friday edition. Jenni does a helpful review of the other Verdi slots of the week at 30m42s; Dr Jane Rutherford and I are introduced at c33m40s).
One of the fun spinoffs from appearing on this still much-loved programme, is getting surprise messages from erstwhile ones such as our beloved Linda Esther Gray, who e-mailed from Oklahoma where she's following in her tutor Eva Turner's footsteps as college voice tutor. More from her anon. I thought I'd sign off by doing what others did on the bicentenary birthday day proper, choosing a favourite slice of YouTube Verdi, but as the Abbado or Toscanini recordings of Falstaff Act 1 Scene 2 aren't there - and a fizzing ensemble seemed fairest - I'll have to pass on that one.
Just in case you missed the change up top, the podcast of the ENO Fledermaus pre-performance event chaired by Christopher Cook is now available to listen to here.