Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (Highlights) (1874)
Rosalinda - Regina Resnik (soprano); Adele - Patrice Munsel (soprano); Alfred - Jan Peerce (tenor); Gabriel von Eisenstein - James Melton (tenor); Prince Orlofsky - Risë Stevens (mezzo); Dr. Falke - Robert Merrill (baritone); Frank - Hugh Thompson (baritone); The Lawyer - Johnny Silver (tenor); Ida - Paula Lenchner (soprano)
Robert Shaw Chorale/Robert Shaw
RCA Victor Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. Manhattan Center, New York City, USA, 20 September 1950, first issued on RCA Victor LM-1114, Mono, transfer for CD in 2010 by Pristine Audio
No booklet or texts included; inside front cover lists tracks and artists, brief notes available on back cover written by Mark Obert-Thorn

Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus is in my opinion the best of his stage works. The original libretto was by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée after Le Reveillon by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The English libretto used here is by Ruth and Thomas Martin. It’s accomplished musically and dramatically and the composer clearly demonstrates his artistic maturity and his talent for melodic, catchy tunes. There are countless versions of Die Fledermaus on CD, on DVD, and, more recently, at least one on Blu-ray, some in an English translation; others in its original German.

The present CD is a transfer from an old 1950 recording of Die Fledermaus, which Pristine Audio released earlier this year. With the exception of conductor Fritz Reiner and the RCA Victor Orchestra of which I had heard and read about, and also famous baritone Robert Merrill, who sings Dr. Falke, I confess that I had no idea who the other artists were, mainly because they were all active long before I was born. As, more often than not, such old recordings are of very poor quality (even after the transfer to CD) I must admit that I was a bit reluctant even to listen to the work. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to realise that although mono, the sound is very clear, clean and that the transfer is excellent; possibly one of the best I have heard.

In the absence of performance notes or artists’ biographies, I did some research on the internet to learn about some of the lead singers and also about the history of the recording. There is some interesting information regarding the production of this Die Fledermaus for the Met, provided by producer and audio restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, on the CD back cover, which can also be found on the Pristine Audio website. According to Obert-Thorn, at the time of the recording, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was Rudolf Bing and the season of 1949-50 was his first. He wanted a new production of Strauss’s famous, popular operetta but he wanted something different: he had opted for a Broadway-style revival, in English. And here resides my main issue with this CD. Strauss’s operetta does lend itself to a Broadway-style staging, due to its catchy tunes, beautiful melodies and very funny use of comedy techniques, as well as a witty libretto. Naturally, if it was going to be presented in the manner of a Broadway musical then it had to be in English. Personally, however, I do not think that the music harmonises well with an English libretto, however excellent the translation might be. Ruth and Thomas Martin who translated the German libretto for this adaptation did an excellent job and arguably the best ever while trying to remain as faithful as possible to the German original. Unfortunately, to my mind, it just does not work so well. There are many parts where this is noticeable. To me, the most annoying is the final ensemble in Act II, Brüderlein, Schwesterlein, appearing here as “Brother dear, Sister dear”, which loses impact. On the other hand, they did a good job of Trinke liebchen, trinke schnell by translating it as “Drink, my darling, drink to me”, which at least keeps a similar linguistic rhythm to the original.

Language aside - which is only my personal view - the recording is very pleasant and the performance rather attractive. Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) proves his insight into the music and leads the RCA Victor Orchestra into a colourful, vibrant and lively performance of Die Fledermaus that will have you dance on your seat or sing along while you are listening to it. Reiner was a very distinguished conductor in his day; mostly of opera but also of symphonic works. Born in Budapest, Hungary, he worked closely with Richard Strauss in Dresden and in 1922 went to the States, where he became an American citizen in 1928, remaining there to the end of his days. He was said to be a quiet, sober conductor and his leading of the orchestra was almost imperceptible, which is particularly interesting when one remembers that Leonard Bernstein was his most famous student.

Robert Merrill was the only singer I knew and that I had heard before, mainly through my father’s old recordings of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and “Duets and Scenes” (including the celebrated duet from Bizet’s The pearl fishers) with Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. Merrill sang with a clear, pure but rich voice; his baritone was resonant but warm; sometimes soft and delicate; others powerful and often with a velvet quality of tone. Even though in this CD of Highlights from Die Fledermaus, one does not hear enough of him in order to appreciate the full colours of his voice, his appearances are pleasant and effective.

As I did not know the other singers, after listening to this recording the first time, I went to YouTube, where these days one can find everything, and I was able to listen to tenor Jan Peerce, who sings Alfred with grace and easiness, performing other arias from great operas, as for example Lensky’s aria in Tchaikovsky’s Onegin. He had a truly great dramatic voice, powerful, expressive and on occasions with an almost baritone edge to it while reaching the higher notes with style and elegance. I must also mention Regina Resnik who delivers an excellent Rosalinda, displaying comical talent and a brilliant coloratura, particularly during the famous Czardas that she sings with great finesse; James Melton who performs a very convincing Gabriel von Eisenstein; Patrice Munsel who plays Adele and possesses a really beautiful crystal clear soprano and last, but definitely not least, Risë Stevens who delivers a fantastic Prince Orlofsky in her melting, sensuous mezzo-soprano tone. All of them can be enjoyed on YouTube in some great performances, which I would recommend, if, like me, you never had the opportunity of listening to them before.

The present CD release of this early recording of Die Fledermaus completely achieves what it set out to do, which was to give a rendition of Strauss’s operetta as a Broadway musical. The sound is of surprising good quality and if you prefer to listen to it in English because you wish to enjoy the witty plot in its entirety, then this CD is definitely for you. However, if like me, you understand German and you prefer to hear the work sung in the language for which the music was intended, then this is not the recording for you and you must look for one of the many excellent versions, available on CD or DVD, which reproduce the original in all its glorious detail.

Margarida Mota-Bull