The Bat’s in the Belfry
It’s the nearest thing there is to a 1930’s screwball comedy in song. I’m referring, of course, to Johann Strauss Jr.’s delightful 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus, given at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday, January 11, 2014, in a new English-language version directed by Jeremy Sams, who also adapted the lyrics. The dialogue is the work of Douglas Carter Beane.
The original German libretto, by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée, was based on a French burlesque, Le Réveillon (“New Year’s Eve”) by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the team that helped bring those wonderful French farces from the hand of Jacques Offenbach to light; which in turn was derived from a German comedy of manners, Die Gefängnis, or “The Prison,” by Julius Roderich Benedix. What goes around, comes around, at least where this work is concerned.
An exceedingly sprightly showpiece, with a bubbly and effervescent score, Die Fledermaus — even in translation, it’s never been called by the off-putting English title of “The Bat” — has been presented regularly in Austria since its debut there. Strauss the Younger (along with dear old Papa Johann before him) was dubbed the city’s “Waltz King” for his justly famous On the Beautiful Blue Danube and Tales from the Vienna Woods, among other familiar tunes. All of which earned Old Vienna the distinction of “Waltz Capital” of Europe. In addition to the aforementioned Fledermaus, Strauss also wrote the enchanting One Night in Venice and Der Ziegeunerbaron, or “The Gypsy Baron,” which hasn’t been seen at the Met since the 1959-1960 seasons.
The operetta’s elaborate plot involves a certain Dr. Falke (Paulo Szot), who we learn is seeking revenge on his old drinking buddy, Herr Gabriel von Eisenstein (Christopher Maltman), for a prank he once played on him several years back. That prank, such as it was, involved the good doctor being forced to parade around town in an unflattering bat costume — hence the eponymous heading of the work.
As the story takes shape, we realize that the plot is there purely to pay lip service to the wonderful assemblage of lively vocal numbers and energetic ensemble displays. Couples are cuckolded, identities are mistaken and brotherhood is saluted, with some of the cast members finding themselves behind bars, along with a drunken, wise-cracking jailor for company. Before that happens, however, the party revelers come together in praise of wine, women and song in the unparalleled comradeship of Act II, which climaxes in a riotous New Year’s Eve celebration.
At this point, most productions insist on presenting their panoply of star performers in favorite encores, a scintillating hodgepodge of musical hors d’oeuvres as depicted in the Decca/London “Gala Sequence” recording from 1960 (highly recommended, by the way). Simply stated, there are enough comings and goings in Die Fledermaus to occupy three banquet tables, let alone one. With that said, this lavish new Met production is just what the doctor ordered. It arrived on cue, on December 31, 2013, and went off without a hitch. So if you’re game for a sample of Strauss’ sparkling concoction, give a listen to the overture. It will put you in the party-hearty mood quicker than you can say “Auld Langsyne!”
My biggest misfortune, however, was in having to miss the bulk of the broadcast due to a previous engagement. However, let me say this about the new translation: it certainly updates the dialogue to a noticeable degree, sometimes anachronistically so. I’ve heard all sorts of linguistic contortions of the text throughout the years, some with unexpectedly decent results and others distressingly sub-par. This newest edition has a touch of both. It’s not bad but it’s not perfect, either. But then, what translation is?
What little I heard of the singing was relegated to my favorite portion: i.e., the madcap scene between Alfred, Rosalinde and Frank near the end of Act I. Tenor Michael Fabiano, who you may remember was one of the young artists featured in the 2007 documentary The Audition, has come a long way in the last few years. Still only 29, Fabiano gave the libidinous Alfred (who’s supposed to be an egotistical Italian tenor) all the élan and sidesplitting spunk that were required of him. His limitless high A’s in the rousing “Trinken liebchen, trinken schnell” (“Drink, my darling, drink it fast”) were highly welcome, too. He was ably partnered by bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Frank, and soprano Susanna Phillips as a this-side-of-ditzy Rosalinde. Unfortunately, “The Bat” flew off on its own propulsion after that.
I wouldn’t be honest if I did not confess to readers that this work isn’t exactly my cup of tea (or a glass of champagne in this instance). It’s not that I’m against bedroom farces, and I do love comic operas per se: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the frequently stirring Don Giovanni and The Abduction from the Seraglio are among my favorites, as well as The Barber of Seville and anything else by Rossini. But I’ve never been bowled over by the forced hilarity of Die Fledermaus‘ plot or its undisciplined attempts at characterization.
I seem to recall a by-the-numbers New York City Opera production back in the mid-1980’s that, while acceptably sung, was as far away from the Viennese performing style as to barely pass muster. Still, no matter what some enterprising directors and adapters do to it, for the most part Strauss’ music remains indestructible and intact. I’m just not the biggest Fledermaus fan, simple as that.
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
But I am a huge devotee of Russian opera, having studied the language and culture of the country since before my university days. While the citizens of Vienna waltzed the night away to Strauss, over in Moscow and St. Petersburg, they were taking their music a trifle more seriously.
Although the name Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky has forever been associated with ballet — The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are among his most cherished accomplishments — the St. Petersburg-trained composer managed to ingratiate his works into the permanent operatic repertoire with the likes of Pique Dame (“The Queen of Spades”) and especially Eugene Onegin from 1879.
Based on the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, one of Czarist Russia’s greatest poets, Eugene Onegin is a story of social mores and the restrictions society placed on an individual’s life that had particular resonance for Tchaikovsky and his world (See my article on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for details: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/from-verdis-violetta-to-tolstoys-anna-karenina-part-three-two-fallen-sisters-under-the-skin-a-vodka-tonic-with-a-slice-of-shepherds-pie/). Incredibly, both the opera and the novel are classic examples of the old cliché that art imitates life, and vice versa. Pushkin’s tale of the vibrant and naïve girl Tatiana Larina, who falls madly in love at first sight with the remotely handsome title character, rang true not only for the composer but for the work’s original author as well.
In the novel (and also in the opera), the bored aristocrat Onegin seeks relief from his circle’s endless balls and persistent gossip in the company of his friend, the impetuous poet Lensky. While visiting the country estate of the teenaged Tatiana’s parents, Onegin flirts openly with her sister Olga, as vivaciously impulsive as her fiancé Lensky. Olga is the exact opposite of the contemplative Tatiana whose adolescent fawning Onegin had previously dismissed.
Seeing his betrothed hit on by his best friend, Lensky angrily berates him in front of the gathering, which ends with his challenging Onegin to a duel. Unable to ignore this affront to his honor, Onegin accepts the challenge. As a result, Lensky is killed much to the remorseful Onegin’s regret.
As a fictitious narrative, it’s certainly tragic enough. But unfortunately, the real tragedy was yet to come. In 1837, an equally hotheaded 37-year-old Pushkin became the victim of his own reckless behavior, when he was shot dead in a duel with a French cavalry officer suspected of having had an affair with the poet’s wife, Natalia. Years earlier, while intermittently working on Onegin, Pushkin had interrupted his labors to pen several amorous letters and poems, some of which may have been inspired by alleged trysts with married women. It wasn’t boredom that drove the real-life poet to distraction, but the perpetual need to live his life to the fullest.
If poems and letters lent fame and notoriety to Pushkin’s literary legacy, they only brought pain and disillusionment to Tchaikovsky’s musical one. Around the time he took up the composition of his greatest opera (ca. June-July 1877), Tchaikovsky received a letter from a mysterious female admirer: a widowed aristocrat and patroness of the arts by the name of Nadezhda von Meck. Over the next thirteen years, von Meck would help support the composer’s endeavors through annual subsidies that left Tchaikovsky free to devote full-time to his music.
The catch to their platonic arrangement, however, was the condition set forth by von Meck herself: that neither she nor the composer would actively seek each other’s company (they did, quite by accident, come upon one another’s presence, but fled the encounter in discomfiture). While this kind of long-distance relationship may have sounded like a spurious flirtation with social media gone haywire, at the time it was considered a perfectly acceptable means of communication. Over a thousand letters were exchanged between them, many of which reveal their respective writers’ innermost wants and desires.
In the interim, Tchaikovsky became engaged to and subsequently married a former pupil of his, one Antonina Miliukova (again, through highly impassioned correspondence). The marriage turned out to be an unmitigated disaster: Tchaikovsky was a closet homosexual, while Antonina professed heterosexual tendencies (very much so, according to reports). Legally, the couple’s marital status was maintained until the composer’s death, although Tchaikovsky broke with Antonina only months after trying to live together as husband and wife.
What bearing does any of this have on Eugene Onegin? Quite a lot! In fact, the most famous episode from the opera’s three acts, Tatiana’s Letter Scene, is comprised of the lovesick girl pouring her heart and soul out into an emotionally overwrought letter to Onegin. Declaring her undying affection for him, Tatiana confesses rather more than she should.
Later in the act, Onegin pays her a visit and nonchalantly counsels that she should keep her sentiments to herself and in check. Another man in his place would have taken undue advantage of her innocence, he admonishes. As for him, he can only offer Tatiana a brother’s love, but no more. He then casually saunters off. The girl is crushed by Onegin’s brusqueness.
Never Gonna Let You Go!
Though not the titular attraction, Russian diva Anna Netrebko, in the Met’s January 18 broadcast (taped from the October 5, 2013 opening night performance), was the center of attention nonetheless and in her natural element here. Her wistfully sung, finely sculpted portrait of youthful idealism, her premature dreams of married bliss crushed by harsh reality were conveyed with full, burnished tone, steely high notes, and a deep commitment to the part of Tatiana.
It should be evident that this was singing and acting of the highest caliber. Her letter scene was magnificently realized in every way and earned the most prolonged applause of the day. Despite her matronly appearance, Netrebko easily captured the heroine’s charm and boundless enthusiasm in the early going, as well as her burgeoning maturity later on.
Of the principals, Tchaikovsky gave her character his most psychologically probing music. Moreover, Netrebko’s final confrontation with Onegin was an electrifying moment for both protagonists. The soprano’s full-blown admission of love was tempered by the realization that her newfound station in life — as the respectable wife of the much older Prince Gremin — has bound her to be faithful to him no matter how she personally feels toward Onegin.
As Onegin, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien kept a low profile throughout, until his final agonized outburst. If he made less of a vocal and/or dramatic impression than Netrebko, Kwiecien could not be blamed. In the hands of a lesser artist, the role can seem an ungrateful one. After all, he is the only lead without a lengthy solo to unburden his thoughts. He does have a brief arioso in his initial rejection of Tatiana in Act I, and a more fervent declaration in the last scene where he admits to falling desperately in love with the womanly object of his desire.
For many listeners, that confession may have come too late to matter — but this is exactly the point of how Tchaikovsky envisioned this harsh character: as a cynical, inward-looking, totally detached observer of life’s foibles and all the players who inhabit it; one who exudes a melancholy world-weariness, along with a total lack of empathy for others (even for his deceased uncle, according to the novel, whose fortune he had inherited).
Today, this kind of aloof personality would be diagnosed with and treated for Asperger’s syndrome. We were fortunate that Kwiecien was the complete fulfillment of this interpretation. As noted in my review of The Elixir of Love (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/lelisir-damore-the-elixir-of-love-old-wine-in-a-new-bottle/), he and Netrebko make a terrific team. Their return to the Met stage was greeted with roars of approval.
As the dreamy Lensky, tenor Piotr Beczala brought warmth and sensitivity to the poet’s first aria, “Ya lyublyu vas, Olga” (“I love you, Olga”), along with a tragic demeanor for his second act scena prior to his duel. The music for this piece, as well as the scoring for the work in total, is a masterful depiction of sorrow mixed with bittersweet longing for carefree times gone by. Although the role of Lensky is not especially taxing, it requires an artist of great flexibility and sweetness of tone on the one hand, with that extra degree of support on the other for the lower-lying passages of “Kuda, kuda, kuda vy udalilis” (“Where, oh where have you gone, golden days of my youth?”). Beczala dutifully met and passed the challenge.
Valery Gergiev, whose experience with this and dozens of other Russian works at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a fast-paced but responsive reading of this achingly passionate score. The orchestral introduction to the last scene stands as the perfect embodiment of his art: all the fervent intensity, the throbbing anticipation and dark foreboding called for were present. Gergiev milked every last ounce of pathos from the string section, while Donald Palumbo’s chorus proved once again they are more than capable of delivering the goods in any language, including Pushkin’s Russian. I only missed that last measure of Slavic “ping” so beloved of native performers.
Speaking of which, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Elena Zaremba as Mme. Larina, and Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna rounded out the female contingent in fine order. John Graham-Hall delivered Triquet’s couplets in perfectly accurate French, while bass Alexei Tanovitski lent height and gravity to Prince Gremin’s praise of his young wife, the beautiful Tatiana.
Will You Still Need Me When I’m 64?
So how did the Tchaikovsky-von Meck relationship finally end up? We need only look to the opera for clues. In the last scene of Eugene Onegin, after the tables are turned and Tatiana is now the one who rejects Onegin’s advances, she leaves him to bitterly lament his despair over losing her forever. Coincidentally, in October 1890 Nadezhda von Meck sent a farewell letter to Tchaikovsky claiming financial hardship and irrevocably breaking off their thirteen-year correspondence. She advanced him a year’s subsidy and begged him not to forget her.
The despairing composer was left without an explanation for her apparent “betrayal” (his words). It has been speculated that the reasons for von Meck’s letter ran the gamut from terminal illness (i.e., tuberculosis) to permanent paralysis of her writing arm or other health-related issue. Quite possibly, Tchaikovsky’s latent homosexuality may have had a hand in the termination of their relationship, but at that late stage it was highly unlikely.
Suffice it to say that neither party would hear from the other again. On November 6, 1893, not nine days after the successful premiere of his Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”), Tchaikovsky died, at age 53, in St. Petersburg from a cholera epidemic. Two months later, in January 1894, von Meck passed away in Nice, France, at the age of 64.
Had Tchaikovsky and Pushkin known what their futures would bring or that their lives would be reflected in their earlier work, they might never have completed Eugene Onegin, much less started it. And if art doesn’t imitate life in their case, then I don’t know what does.
(End of Part One… To be continued)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes