An excellent 2023 cast puts the fizz back into Vienna State Opera’s venerable Die Fledermaus

AustriaAustria Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Simone Young (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Jakob Pitzer) from the Vienna State Opera, 31.12.2023. (JPr)

Hiroshi Amako (Alfred) and Camilla Nylund (Rosalinde) © WS/Michael Pöhn

Production – Otto Schenk
Stage design – Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume design – Milena Canonero
Choreography for ‘Unter Donner und Blitz’ – Gerlinde Dill
Chorus master – Martin Schebesta

Gabriel von Eisenstein – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Rosalinde – Camilla Nylund
Frank – Wolfgang Bankl
Prince Orlofsky – Patricia Nolz
Alfred – Hiroshi Amako
Dr Falke – Martin Hässler
Dr Blind – Norbert Ernst
Adele – Regula Mühlemann
Ida – Ileana Tonca
Frosch – Johannes Silberschneider
Ivan – Jaroslav Pehal

Vienna was in lockdown when I last saw a New Year’s Eve Die Fledermaus from the Staatsoper in 2020 – where have those years gone? – and that might have affected the performance considerably, so it probably did deserve my headline then of ‘The champagne falls flat’. What a difference this time and I suspect having an audience thoroughly enjoying themselves was part of the reason I really enjoyed Die Fledermaus this time. What did disappoint me subsequently on New Year’s Day was the Vienna Philharmonic’s traditional Musikverein concert. I was full of admiration for Christian Thielemann’s laidback style – apart from one monetary flash of anger – in guiding the orchestra. However, the programme had nine premieres (probably because Sony demanded new works for their almost immediate CD release) and on the evidence of the ‘sameness’ of most of what we heard, there obviously is a good reason some of the pieces were not played before!

With any Fledermaus it is well-nigh impossible not to have memories rekindled of other performances I have seen of this entertaining work over nearly six decades (!) and those appearing in it, such as – amongst many legendary names  – Adele Leigh, Hermann Prey, Marilyn Hill Smith, Eric Shilling, Alan Opie … and even Frankie Howerd in the 1980s as the non-singing jailer, Frosch. My first Fledermaus was at Vienna Volksoper and – although I can’t really remember anything about that – I have seen it there since and also in London, so how did this compare? On this occasion, very highly I am pleased to report.

The libretto was by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée and the plot of their Fledermaus has its roots in French farce, especially with almost all the characters being someone else for most of it. The wealthy philanderer Gabriel von Eisenstein must go to jail for eight days for calling a policeman ‘a jackass’. However, his friend Dr Falke convinces him to spend his last night of freedom at a ball thrown by Prince Orlofsky, an eccentric Russian who has money to burn and is desperate for a good laugh. Falke’s hidden agenda is that he is seeking revenge for a humiliating prank Eisenstein played on him years before. He introduces Eisenstein at the ball as a French marquis, and also invites the prison governor Frank (also posing as a Frenchman), Eisenstein’s chambermaid Adele (supposedly now an actress), and his wife Rosalinde (pretending to be Hungarian) who thinks her husband is in jail. Rosalinde had been ‘entertaining’ Alfred, an Italian tenor, in Eisenstein’s absence and he has been mistakenly taken to jail. In the end, husband and wife – who have been somewhat estranged – are happily reconciled and Eisenstein accepts the joke was on him. As happened now in Vienna what we were able to do was luxuriate in the 3/4 time music from the ‘Waltz King’, and the absurdities of the plot were happily overlooked in all the fun that was had by all.

This production by Otto Schenk – now 93 years young – dates from 1979 and the lavish sets (by the late Günther Schneider-Siemssen) and Milena Canonero’s exquisite costumes are all redolent of fin-de-siècle Vienna. It remains a little cluttered at times but there is a stunning use of a turntable in Act II to reveal the sumptuous ballroom with its large semi-circular table elaborately set for dinner. What can often be a rather stiffly staged ball, becomes a riot of swaying, swirling – drunken or otherwise – figures, ending with the collapse of a massive conga line. All this is underscored by Strauss’s Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning) polka!

It is a deeply traditional Die Fledermaus and – while I am conflicted by Wagner’s ‘Kinder, macht Neues!’ for both opera and ballet – I am happy for productions like this to survive long after their ‘sell-by date’. This performance had some very entertaining moments and was one of best I have seen and heard. Who cares – though some might – that we are enjoying watching rather mature, skirt-chasing men, a megarich Russian performed en travesti and someone with a speech impediment. For a very good Fledermaus – as this was – you need a cast of triple-threats, in this case, fine singers who are equally good at comedy and who may be required to dance well too! The 2023 cast was not as ‘starry’ as that in 1979 which included several legendary names – such as, Bernd Weikl, Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender, Walter Berry, and Edita Gruberová – but they made this champagne-fuelled occasion fizz which is all that matters.

Not only does Fledermaus need singing actors who are consummate light comedians, they should be capable of creating exactly the onstage chemistry for its various couplings they did here. Some I had seen in 2020 but others were new to me in their roles and it is fascinating how many of them have Wagner in their repertoire: particularly, Camilla Nylund who recently made her debut as Brünnhilde, Johannes Martin Kränzle is a renowned Beckmesser, Wolfgang Bankl has sung many Klingsors; with Martin Hässler and Norbert Ernst familiar from a number of Wagner roles.

Johannes Martin Kränzle (Eisenstein) and Regula Mühlemann (Adele) © WS/Michael Pöhn

Johannes Martin Kränzle brought a lot of his consummate Beckmesser to an Eisenstein more exasperated than raffish, though he sang suavely. Martin Hässler’s Falke was suitably conspiratorial and the highpoint of his vocal performance, ‘Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein’, had considerable eloquence. As in 2020 Regula Mühlemann was the singer who encompassed best what a successful Fledermaus needs and her singing as a perky Adele was an absolute delight with precise coloratura during her Act II ‘Laughing Song’ and her instinctive acting full of delightful humour. Hiroshi Amako was a charismatic Alfred and brought a pleasant lyricism to the lovestruck patsy. There was some spirited parodic singing from him with all the tenorial ‘sampling’ that is the ‘in-joke’ of his role. Notably there was quite a bit of Wagner, and especially some Mozart and Puccini, and Rosalinde is greeted in the final act by Alfred singing Florestan’s ‘O namenlose Freude!’ Wolfgang Bankl was a suitably seedy prison governor Frank who has more than just a fatherly interest in supporting Adele’s acting plans. (I am losing count of the times I have seen Frank fall asleep in Act III under the newspaper with his cigar burning through it!) It is Prince Orlofsky who saves Adele from Frank’s advances and Patricia Nolz’s ‘The Champagne Song’ was as sparkling as it must be. Nolz impressed as Orlofsky who is devoid of humour until the end of the second act makes ‘him’ laugh uproariously. Finally, Rosalinde’s famous ‘Czardas’ was heavy going for Camilla Nylund and perhaps ‘Klänge der Heimat’ (‘Sounds from home’) does not entirely suit her current voice but elsewhere there was so much to enjoy in her wholehearted performance and her secure – and undoubtedly Wagnerian – top notes.

It is rare if Act III doesn’t seem a drawn-out affair, particularly if you are not a native German speaker and any English subtitles are not translating all of jailer Frosch’s schtick. I understood some of what leading Austrian actor, Johannes Silberschneider, was saying and laughed more than usual at his (Slivovitz-fuelled) antics, especially concerning a puddle of water and a bucket! He was an expert at physical comedy and amongst some of his asides I think there were a few (contemporary?) scathing comments about Austrian officialdom, beginning with ‘When an Austrian official arrives in his office in the morning he wants his peace and quiet. Why else become a civil servant?’ (This is very reminiscent of Britain’s Working From Home problems.)

Ileana Tonca was a charming Ida once again, and as in 2020, deserving of special praise were a wonderfully committed and energetic chorus and the ebullient dancers during their Act II shenanigans. As heard through loudspeakers, I could not fault Simone Young’s conducting which had all the vitality and headlong rush this operetta needs. There was a genuine sense of echt Viennese Schwung from Young and the members of the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. With Riccardo Muti announced again (why??) for the 2024 New Year’s Day concert could a woman – Young herself possibly? – ever be a candidate for that prestigious event?

All in all – if perhaps not a Die Fledermaus for the ages – it was wonderful start to my 2024 musical journey.

Jim Pritchard

Featured image: Regula Mühlemann (Adele) and Patricia Nolz (Orlofsky) © WS/Michael Pöhn

1 thought on “An excellent 2023 cast puts the fizz back into Vienna State Opera’s venerable <i>Die Fledermaus</i>”

  1. This is indeed a great production, especially when you seen the original with Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová and Bernd Weikl…(what a cast!).
    In comparison this year’s offering in Munich, the new Barrie Kosky production – dire dribble & badly sung.


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