Over-Cooked Narration Hobbles Die Fledermaus

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Johann Strauss II: Die Fledermaus (a semi-staged concert version directed by Simon Butteriss): Soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra, John Wilson (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.4.2014. (JPr)

Simon Butteriss: director, narrator, Dr Blind
Pablo Bemsch: Alfred
Malin Christensson: Adele
Aga Mikolaj: Rosalinde von Eisenstein
Toby Spence: Gabriel von Eisenstein
Jacques Imbrailo: Dr Falke
Alan Opie: Frank
Pamela Helen Stephen: Prince Orlofsky
Rebecca Moon: Adele’s Friend

The ubiquitous Gavin Plumley (is there no musical work he cannot introduce?) wrote in his programme note for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Sunday Matinee performance of Die Fledermaus about how the catchphrase for this 1874 work is ‘Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was doch nicht zu ändern ist’. He translates that as ‘Happy is he who forgets what can no longer be changed’. For myself, I take that as meaning try to forget what has gone before – but that was difficult when my memories of this entertaining work include having seen memorable performers in it such as Adele Leigh, Hermann Prey, Marilyn Hill Smith, Eric Shilling, Alan Opie (over several decades and now back again as Frank) … and even Frankie Howerd in the 1980s as the non-singing gaoler, Frosch. I never try to compare (honestly) but how did this afternoon concert rank alongside previous performances in Vienna or London I have seen? Sadly, not that highly. Despite having an Eisenstein (Toby Spence) that I heard one audience member say – quite rightly – was the ‘spitting image’ of the wine connoisseur, Ollie Smith, the champagne on offer from this operetta was of a rather so-so vintage and a little flat at times, despite the energetic efforts of all concerned.

What went wrong? It should have been better because the conductor, John Wilson, wanted us to concentrate on the two hours of music Strauss gives us and the dialogue was ditched in favour of singing it in John Mortimer’s English translation for Covent Garden and having a narrator tell us the plot. Actually, the plot is more straightforward than anyone seemed to want to admit and, of course, it can always benefit from less talking. The story has some of its roots in French farce – especially with almost all the characters being someone else for most of it – and centres on the wealthy philanderer Gabriel von Eisenstein having to go to jail for a few days for nothing in particular, but his friend, Dr Falke, convinces him to spend his last night of freedom cavorting at a ball thrown by the eccentric Russian Prince Orlofsky.

Falke’s hidden agenda is that in retaliation for a humiliating prank played on him years before, he introduces Eisenstein at the ball as a French Marquis, and also invites the prison governor, Frank, Eisenstein’s maid, Adele, and his wife, Rosalinde, who thinks Eisenstein is spending the night in jail. Rosalinde had been ‘entertaining’ the Italian tenor, Alfred, in Eisenstein’s absence and he has been mistakenly carted off to jail; in the end husband and wife – who have been somewhat estranged – are happily reconciled and Eisenstein accepts the joke was on him. What we should luxuriate in are the 3/4 rhythms from the ‘Waltz King’, Johann Strauss II and the implausibility of the plot should matter not a jot.

The main problem with this Die Fledermaus was that having ditched virtually all the dialogue it was replaced with a narration, written and delivered by Simon Butteriss, as Dr Blind, Gabriel von Eisenstein’s incompetent lawyer who actually gets his sentence increased. We had comments about barristers, Freud, non-existent sisters, a punched policeman being called a ‘pleb’, Italian tenors, Tsar Putin being stripped to the waist, nuns as well as Orlofsky actually being a woman and not a monster but a mezzo. The best moment was the encounter between the two fake Frenchmen at the ball, Eisenstein and Frank, which ended with ‘Courage, mon brave’ being answered by ‘Nigel Farage’ – language Butteriss announced that was unacceptable in any European country! It was a very elderly audience – and the Royal Festival Hall was not full – and although a few of the topical remarks in the narration hit their target, certainly not all of them did. I am sure some of the cast could have learnt sufficient dialogue to help the audience with the story and anyway the funniest moment was the drunken Frank’s silent comic turn on returning from the ball and involved just the lighting of cigarette and a newspaper. No words were necessary.

I’m not sure whether the singers needed the amplification they were given as they are all experienced performers. Nobody really had anything to say apart from Butteriss’s Dr Blind. I am not certain actually whether the miking did the orchestra or the singers’ justice at any time. There was a heaviness to the overall sound at times for something at should actually be more soufflé and less treacle pudding. Then there was the involvement of singers whose first language was not English such as Aga Mikolaj as Rosalinde. Her carefully enunciation often didn’t give great confidence she understood entirely all she was saying and she never appeared at her ease. She sang the famous Csárdás – when Butteriss has her in the guise of the Countess ‘Zsa Zsa Gaboria’ – in the original German and whilst she was more comfortably vocally, I now didn’t hear many words.

Malin Christensson was a pert and personable Adele but her voice never truly sparkled as it should. Nevertheless she was feisty enough that when she sang how she is not the actress she is pretending to be, Christensson accidentally pushed her sister ‘Ida’ (Rebecca Moon) to the floor! Elsewhere, the fine tenor, Toby Spence, was miscast as Gabriel von Eisenstein and did not appear a natural comedian though he sang reasonably well. No-one could better the veteran Alan Opie (who I have previously seen as both Eisenstein and Falke) and although he had too little to do his eloquent baritone is still in remarkable shape. Almost his equal was Jacques Imbrailo’s Dr Falke, the author of all the ‘the bat business’ we were shown and he led off ‘Brother mine and Sister mine’ very idiomatically and the ensuing ensemble was one of the highlights of the afternoon. Opie’s Frank apart, acting honours went to Pamela Helen Stephen’s who was a very plausible, vodka-and-fun-loving, Prince Orlofsky and she sang well too with a confident swagger to her voice. Pablo Bemsch completed the cast as a sweet-toned Alfred and the Philharmonia Voices enthusiastically were the guests and servants of the Prince.

John Wilson was his usual flamboyant self on the podium but from the rather wan Overture onwards the Philharmonia Orchestra never really fizzed as it should in Die Fledermaus though it is always a delight to hear Strauss’s glorious melodies – the waltzes, polkas, galops, and folk tunes – once again. I have admitted before – and will happily do so again – that because it is my heritage I prefer Johann to Richard Strauss; so despite the somewhat annoying narration and because it improved immeasurably after Act I, it did in the end make me ‘homesick’ for Vienna.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Philharmonia Orchestra’s season visit www.philharmonia.co.uk.

2 thoughts on “Over-Cooked Narration Hobbles <i>Die Fledermaus</i>”

  1. I think Jim Pritchard is more or less spot on in his comments. Despite building a reputation in the area of popular light music, John Wilson was clearly out of his depth in this Viennese idiom. I have rarely heard such four-square metronomic conducting of a piece that needs to glide along effortlessly, its sparkle and charm punctuated in the big numbers by what the Viennese call “Schmiß”. There was none of that here. A very flat glass of champagne. Go to Carlos Kleiber in his DVD with Bavarian forces for a taste of the real thing.

  2. I go along with much that has been said, but it should be noted that Aga Mikolaj, who had sung Rosalinde at the Bolshoi recently – of course, in German – had to learn the English version for this one-off concert on quite short notice. This might explain why she was not at ease with some of her texts. Her ‘Csardas’ – delivered in German and with seemingly no miking – was an excellent rendition, and unlike the reviewer I was able to hear all words.

    The miking of the singers was chosen because, so I was told, someone in the past had complained they could not understand the singers. I believe, it was an unforgivable mistake: Not only were seasoned opera singers in stage, who didn’t need this, sung texts were also on surtitles. Worst of all, the miking was done in such an amateurish and uneven way that I could hardly believe it.

    Frank’s act with the newspaper is, by the way, a classic one which I have seen on stage several times. Using a copy of Germany’s ‘Bild-Zeitung’ can be seen as a sign how far this ‘Bat’ had flown away from Vienna.

    Having expected this, I felt it was still a good Sunday afternoon show altogether.


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