Déjà Review: this review was first published in December 2001 and the recording is still available.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus
, Operetta in three acts
Rosalinde – Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Adele – Rita Streich (soprano)
Gabriel von Eisenstein – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Alfred – Helmut Krebs (tenor)
Dr. Falke – Erich Kunz (baritone)
Orlofsky – Rudolph Christ (tenor)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1955, Kingsway Hall, London, UK
Reviewed as EMI 5670742
Warner Classics 9668442 [2 CDs: 110]

This is just the recording to demonstrate to the next generation that oper(a)(etta) is an art form with almost limitless potential. They must go through their designer clothes and computer games years to emerge into their teens when a gift of this CD would reveal a new world. Many generations have come to music via one work. For many the road to opera is this work. And this is a definitive version of it. It is not ‘the’ definitive version because no such recording exists. What appeals particularly to you may not to me and vice versa. That said I would lay a fair number of shirts on first that you would be hard put to assemble a more deservedly respected group of singers and second that all were on top form on recording day.

At that point my shirts return to their drawer or rail, because not everyone will agree about the input of the producer Walter Legge nor all the tempi of Karajan. Personal preferences, so often influenced by up bringing, come to the fore. The detailed accompanying booklet notes tell us that Legge handpicked the cast, freely edited the dialogue and, with Karajan, sought and received a “grit, dash and pep” Rosalinde from Schwarzkopf. All of which is evident and to which I will return.

The overall achievement is the quality of the singing. There is not even a hint of weakness in any of the links. As the orchestrator of the entertainment the performance of the golden baritone of Erich Kunz as Dr. Falke is faultless. He enjoyed his role and it shows.

That lays the groundwork for Nicolai Gedda (Eisenstein) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Rosalinde) to play their roles in the Bat’s revenge. Eisenstein’s vocal demands are but nothing to Gedda. His irascibility with Dr. Blind is rapidly replaced by effervescent excitement with the rounded full voice of Falke; through the hesitant mistaken identity of Adele; into the creamy attempted seduction of Rosalinde and via final self-righteous indignation in prison to marital reconciliation. Gedda meets every demand and appears to have voice to spare.

We know, because the notes tell us, that Schwarzkopf was asked for ‘grit’. That is what we receive. Here is the powerful pure voice giving us that with edginess in the timbre. Personal preference makes me hesitate over the interpretation. ‘Outrage’ may be Rosalinde’s response to a requested parting kiss but she cannot show that without deflecting the plot from its course. She must give in and knows that pragmatism must rule. At the Ball the edginess is apparent to us but not Eisenstein who hears only the playful perfect note hitting teasing and misses the ‘hidden steel’. That is given rein in the denouement. Whatever your view of the interpretation this is an awesome performance.

The Adele of Rita Streich is wholly entertaining. Here is a soubrette played with supreme insouciance. Her ringingly clear Mein Herr Marquis…is delivered with light delicacy and refinement on the one hand mixed with mockery on the other.

Helmut Krebs is supremely relaxed as Alfred. He sings the role with apparent effortless ease allowing his voice to soar off stage, both initially and in prison. On stage his timbre is in excellent contrast to that of Gedda. His is the gay cavalier in wooing, careless of his own fate and that of others. Enjoyment is all: and it is patent.

Instead of the somewhat difficult soprano role for Orlofsky which on some recordings comes out with false heartiness, here tenor Rudolph Christ sings the role with a languid ennui which pervades each phrase until the revenge is making real progress when there is a hint of enthusiasm, but no more. Of all the refinements from the conventional production this is the one that stands best – particularly where the vocal tone is so well controlled

The Frank of Karl Dönch and the Dr Blind of Erich Majkut complete the singing roles. Dönch is all that could be asked from prison governor and Chevalier Chagrin. Majkut’s excellent subservience and worsening stammer is perfect for imitation, which Gedda does so well in the prison scene.

Thus far I have looked at the individuals: now take them singing with each other. On every occasion the sum is greater than the component parts. It is unfair to select any particular vocal combination: whereupon many reviewers do so. I shall not. I shall just say: listen in rapt admiration to voices together, which make sounds to delight the ear.

Vocally Walter Legge cannot be faulted in his choice of individual voices or his concept of their varied combinations. I was less comfortable with his libretto refinements.

As accompanists to singing, the orchestra are well balanced with the voices. At other times they are superbly drilled and their military precision is almost breathtaking. But, for me, in the waltzes there is too much parade ground and not enough ballroom. Compare this production with the recording Karajan made five years later (Decca 4211 046) with its creamy orchestral touches and lyrical waltzes.

Which leaves the speaking roles and particularly Franz Böheim as Frosch. This is a mature performance of what is now considered the unacceptable face of drunkenness. I doubt if the next generation will find this as diverting as earlier generations; but that cannot detract from the quality of the performance

No more. This is a vocally definitive version. Die Fledermaus with an assembly of voices which it is difficult if not impossible to improve upon. It is a great recording. If you do not buy it for yourself buy it for a young friend and let the genie of the operetta dance for them.

Robert McKechnie

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