Die Fledermaus (Covent Garden); From the House of the Dead (Coliseum)
New Statesman, Jan. 1978
Perhaps the reasoning behind the new Covent Garden production ran somewhat thus. Die Fledermaus is all about a bat and a ball; so it ought to go with a swing in Britain, and even make a big hit. Let's turn the title role into a sport-loving Englishman, complete with tennis-racket (bat, get it?). Then his ex-partner Rosalinde, now unsafely married and living inVienna, can be English-speaking too. The obscure intrigues and suspicions (which also notoriously fly by twilight) will become plain as noonday. The switch from English to German and back again can be made confusingly comical in itself; audiences will chuckle at the misunderstanding an sich.
There is further fun to be extracted from additional updated exchanges, or even sex changes; how about extending the mezzo‑soprano part of Orlofsky into a tenor role? Then let's write plenty of new musical allusions into the score for the fans and the critics to identify; if they can. We could easily persuade suitable stars to grace the night with guest appearances. For the TV production we can even pretend that all the BBC-2 viewers have been asked along to the Act Two Party, and print the Radio Times heading in the guise of a posh invitation card. For that same unsophisticated public, we'll pop a couple of the cast into a box at the opera-house, complete with a comic costume and a bogus accent, all ready to expound the plot. That'll make a change from Richard Baker, and also show that Die Fledermaus is undemandingly light entertainment. We can’t expect the ordinary British viewer or opera-goer to swallow the foreign ironies and complexities of Johann Strauss without copious doses of soothing syrup.
Well, some at least of those contentions may have been soundly based in the event, the new production has proved widely appreciated and successful. The brilliantly lit and staged soirée rightly enjoyed a rousing reception, because it was one. On TV, Daniel Barenboim played the first Chopin Ballade as a party piece. Isaac Stern flew in from New York and flew through the Mendelssohn finale; a flitting tribute to the occasion. Otherwise the same product was available in the home as in the Garden; and the preview afforded a revealing comparison. Since about 1600, the word “screen” has connoted a concealment from viewers, and it looks to me as if the TV screen is continuing that tradition. Direct relay gave no very clear picture of the extra depth and dimension of Julia Oman's resplendent sets, or the wide-ranging movement of Leopold Lindtberg's engaging production. But conversely these same distances and diversions made the sung German that much harder to follow. So the great advantage of TV is seen to be its sound (full credit to Graham Haines); and even that came best from Radio 3 stereo.
Personally I was not much attracted by the seasonal novelties, in either medium. All the added language was too obviously tongue in cheek; and its interpretation soon became seriously confused. How could the Viennese party plausibly be compèred in English at all, even without the repeated acknowledgments to Sir Frederick Ashton? At this rate the spot will soon he taken over by speeches from the sponsors. Next, the constant roof highlighting of the dialogue predictably showed up some good singers as indifferent actors, Then most of the musical quotations seemed to strike a fake note, whether because they were too blatant (Wagner) or too obscure (Wolf). It might have been better to play safe and keep a straight Fledermaus. Still, the score was a winning one, as ever, with some fine individual performances. Benjamin Luxon as Dr Falke, alias the Bat, always twinkled cheerfully and sometimes shone, especially in his Bruderschaft round of drinks and kisses, to which Zubin Mehta's uncommonly sober tempo lent an air of blissful intoxication. Not only Hildegard Heichele's laughing song but her whole portrayal was a liltingly vivid demonstration of how readily a maid can become a mistress. Kiri te Kanawa as Rosalinde looked and sounded beautiful, and the difficult Austro-Hungarian interpretation was well managed; but she was a little lacking in sheer dash, even in her rightly acclaimed Czardas. Hermann Prey was nimbly flexible of voice and presence, though his agreeable baritone is hardly light enough for the frivolity of Eisenstein. Robert Tears voice sounded to me just as miscast and ineffective in Orlofsky’s music as his mock-Russian accent. .
It was a mild protest against the Orlofskys of this world that nearly precipitated Dostoevsky into the next one. He faced a firing-squad, literally; but his sentence was clemently commuted to the living death of Siberia, where prison was no joke. Nor is Janacek's last opera, which is based on that harrowing experience. In real life, no doubt, the naked truth would stand out in stark contrast to masked balls; but in the unnatural history of opera, From the House of the Dead is a related species of Die Fledermaus. They both depict humanity in its usual desperate quest for affection, recognition and diversion. Even the convicts have a New Year's party complete with cabaret turns. But on the present showing Janacek's masterpiece lacks the inner coherence of Strauss's, Much of his score is laid out in repetitive patterns of agonized feelings; like a flogged back; in its more optimistic moods the music keeps on escaping from Siberia; leaving the dejected cast and the sombre sets far behind. Furthermore, the orchestral dynamics and timbres conspire with the Coliseum acoustics, a misaccentuated translation and lack of determined vocal protection to render the words mainly inaudible; and though inarticulateness may be English, and even National, it's certainly not Opera.