Jonas Kaufmann And Franz Welser-Möst Present “Die Fledermaus” In Dresden

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
27 December, 2018

Does the world really need another Fledermaus recording? Absolutely, yes! There are many glorious versions available already with singularly good performers, Fritzi Massary singing “Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande” in 1917 for example, or Adele Kern doing the same in 1929. Then there’s Ljuba Welitsch 1950 from the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Rosalinde, with Charles Kullmann as Eisenstein and Richard Tucker as Alfred, not to mention Lily Pons as Adele; or there’s Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in 1955 giving artificiality and artistry to the show like no one before or after did. Obviously there are also the two Hilde Güden Rosalindes, one with Herbert von Karajan 1960, one with Clemens Krauss 1950. They are in a class of their own. There’s Adele Leigh (1964) and Wilma Lipp (1966), both as Rosalinde, both amazing, but not quite as characteristic as Güden or Schwarzkopf. After that come the bland 1970s and 80s studio versions from the TV operetta age that seem comparatively bloodless: Anneliese Rothenberger, the former quirky Adele, turned into a boring Rosalinde in 1972 next to Nicolai Gedda’s Eisenstein, then Gundula Janowitz in 1974 with Karl Böhm and a dreadful Wolfgang Windgassen as Prince Orlofsky. Followed in 1976 by Julia Varady and Hermann Prey as the Eisensteins under Carlos Kleiber. And on it goes. Till you arrive in 2018 and the two Dresden New Year’s concerts on 29 and 30 December, featuring Jonas Kaufmann as the philandering husband. The second concert will be transmitted on German TV at 10 pm, on ZDF. Without doubt there will be a DVD or CD, or both.

The interior of Semperoper for the Silversterkonzert. (Photo: Matthias Creutziger)

The interior of Semperoper for the Silversterkonzert. (Photo: Matthias Creutziger)

The Dresden performances with the luxurious Sächsische Staatskapelle are conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, because their regular chief conductor Christian Thielemann is in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for their New Year’s offering on January 1 with a different set of Johann Strauss music.

In the listing of the Dresden stars, Welser-Möst and Kaufmann are immediately followed by Elisabeth Kulman as Prince Orlofsky, which is somewhat unusual. Then comes Andreas Schager as Alfred. If you move further down, you read that Rachel Willis-Sørensen is Rosaldine to Tuuli Takala‘s Adele (and to Tahnee Niboro‘s Ida). Sebastian Wartig sings Falke, Michael Kraus is Frank, and Beomjin Kim performs the comic character Dr. Blind.

You might wonder why you need a South Korean tenor in this tiny character role – or is it racist to even ask this? And why is there an American soprano as Rosalinde? (Because there’s no dialogue in this version?)

Anyway, I could go on. But won’t. Because this is very likely not the recording the world has waited for. It has nothing novel to offer, unless you count Jonas Kaufmann’s first outing as Eisenstein as a novelty which justifies everything. (Mmmmmmm….) But surrounding him with more or less anonymous singers (however good they might be as Rusalka or Gilda) and without any serious operetta connection means you’ll get yet another one of those lifeless – supposedly well-meaning – classical concerts in which the great opera stars allow themselves to be ‘casual’ and ‘fun’ for one night only, like Anna Netrebko and Juan-Diego Florez in Csardasfürstin, also from Dresden. And then it’s back to ‘serious’ opera, before the reputation is ruined.

That these performances have little to do with why Die Fledermaus ever became popular in the first place seems to be of no interest to the directors of ZDF or the casting office at Semperoper. They want one or two big names, they want a famous show title. And that’s it for a late night broadcast. I doubt that very many CDs or DVDs will be sold, no matter how hard the marketing department tries to sell the product on the basis of Mr. Kaufmann’s photogenic look/locks.

Given the setting, i.e. a famous symphony orchestra and a TV team with superb microphone equipment, it would have been interesting to present the world with a Fledermaus entirely cast with singing actors, true character players, like the 1874 world premiere of Fledermaus where there wasn’t a single opera singer in sight. (To read Kurt Gänzl’s Fledermaus history, click here.)

Drawing from the newspaper "Die Bombe" by László von Frecskay, showing Marie Geistinger as Rosalinde, and Jani Szika as Eisenstein in "Die Fledermaus," 1874.

Drawing from the newspaper “Die Bombe” by László von Frecskay, showing Marie Geistinger as Rosalinde, and Jani Szika as Eisenstein in “Die Fledermaus,” 1874.

How glorious would it be to roll out the red carpet of sound for a group of modern-day actors who can deliver dialogue, who have unique personalities, and who have a fan base… A bit of swooning from the fans has never hurt operetta!

There have been so many outstanding German operetta performances lately with performers I’d love to hear in a Strauss show like this: Anna Mateur would be a hilarious Adele, Andreja Schneider an equally out-of-this-world Orlofsky, there are the Jonas Dasslers and Max Hopps as Eisenstein and Falke and what-not, there’s Vladimeer Korneev if you want a sizzling Alfred. And there’s Serkan Kaya who could probably steal the show from each and every one of them, just like Katharine Mehrling would. This list could go on.

There has been a first modern – and successful – attempt to return Die Fledermaus to the ‘true blood’ of the genre: in the summer of 2018 the Casinotheater Winterhur presented Die Rache der Fledermaus in Switzerland, cast entirely with singing actors who performed the show in a new musical arrangement. Among the stars in Stefan Huber’s production were Tobias Bonn and Christoph Marti (of Geschwister Pfister fame) as Gabriel und Rosalinde Eisenstein, plus Stefan Kurt as Frosch. The musical update was made by conductor Kai Tietje. It’s a very different sound world than the 1870s and typical Johann Strauss, so it’s an interesting alternative. Operetta can use musical updates!

But what hasn’t happened, so far, is a combination of the original ‘classic’ orchestra sound and this kind of casting, allowing you to hear the ‘critical edition’ of Die Fledermaus from the Neue Johann Strauss Gesamtausgabe with a  cast to match such ‘critical’ standards.

For this to turn from dream to reality, we’ll have to wait for a conductor who is bit more interested in the finer aspects of the genre, not like Nikolaus Harnoncourt who claimed such an interest and used a critical edition but then released a Fledermaus with Edita Gruberova as Rosaldine: hardly the same as Marie Geistinger. It doesn’t seem that Mr. Welser-Möst has invested any deeper thoughts, or maybe he still believes that this kind of TV operetta casting is what the genre is all about since he grew up seeing is as such?

If you want classical singers, you might as well stick with Schwarzkopf, Güden, and yes, Welitsch. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Whether you’ll enjoy the Dresden performance – with Sky du Mont and Christine Schütze as Masters of Ceremonies – depends on what your personal operetta ideal is. And on what kind of end-of-the-year relaxation you are looking for.

But maybe a miracle will happen and the performance on ZDF will be a revelation? Let’s wait and find out!

For more information click here. The live stream on ZDF can be found here.