Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
La Chauve-souris (ballet in two acts after Die Fledermaus) (1979) [93:00]
Musical arrangement by Douglas Gamley
Choreography by Roland Petit
Bella - Allesandra Ferri
Johann - Massimo Murru
Ulrich - Luigi Bonino
Csárdás soloist - Mick Zeni
A tenor - Giorgio Trucco
Orchestra and Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala/Kevin Rhodes
Directed for TV and video by Tina Protasoni
rec. live performance from Teatro degli Arcimboldi, Milan, 2003
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107 265 [93:00]
Some of my most pleasurable evenings with ballet DVDs in recent months have involved productions from La Scala, Milan. The thrilling pairing of Svetlana Zhakarova and Roberto Bolle may be seen in Swan Lake (from 2004), Giselle (2005) (see here) and La Bayadère (2006). Bolle and others feature in a hugely enjoyable - if rather self-indulgent - Tchaikovsky Gala recorded on New Year’s Eve 2007. Most recently, La Scala's lavishly authentic 2011 recreation of Glazunov's Raymonda was a fabulous treat and was deservedly acclaimed as a MusicWeb International Recording of the Month (see here).

This new release features another Milan production from the past decade - a 2003 staging of choreographer Roland Petit's two-act take on Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus.

Petit is perhaps best known for his stylistic eclecticism and for the sensuality and eroticism to be found in much of his work. Booklet notes writer Horst Koegler puts it well: “The palette of his balletic vocabulary is ... broad, never denying its rocksolid roots in the classical-academic techniques of the danse d'école but regularly borrowing from the ballroom, revue, sport, the circus and variétés, cinema and whatever's latest on the pop scene. And always the scent of a very French sex appeal ...”

Petit seems too to have enjoyed exploring relatively dark themes: the story of possibly his best-known workLe Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946) concerns a young man who takes his own life rather than live with his lover’s betrayal. Perhaps it is not without significance that Petit’s formative years as a choreographer coincided with the post-war cinematic vogue for the cynical and downbeat world of film noir.

But Petit also exhibited what his friend Irene Lydova identified as a “Champagne style” (see here) and La Chauve-souris, originally choreographed in 1979, is a vintage example.

Although the ballet's title translates into English as “The Bat” and the music is Johann Strauss II’s, this is not simply a danced version of Die Fledermaus. Neither is it some sort of expanded version of that opera’s sometimes-omitted Act 2 ballet sequence.

There are, it is true, some basic elements of the same story here: the wife and her cheating husband, her loyal old suitor, a big set-piece party and a prison scene. Hoiwever, the location has been changed from Vienna to Paris and the time of the action advanced by twenty years or so, while other significant alterations simplify the tale and make the action somewhat easier to follow.

An essentially frivolous tone is set from an opening scene set in Bella and Johann's dysfunctional household where the husband prefers to flirt with the maid rather than pay attention to his wife; meanwhile the children run riot. After an amusing episode at the family dining-table, Johann unexpectedly transforms himself into a bat and flies off for an evening at Maxim's restaurant. His distraught spouse is persuaded by her admirer Ulrich to follow him in glamorous disguise in order to test whether her husband will succumb to extra-marital temptation.

As might only be feared, Johann is smitten by the mysterious, seductive “stranger” encountered at Maxim's and is only prevented from having his wicked way with her by the arrival of the police who take him into custody. Eventually rescued from prison by his wife, however, he is brought to realise that a life of dull domesticity is probably to be preferred and decides to renounce his days as the philandering bat.

The simple storyline resolutely chooses to ignore any serious moral issues. Indeed, its only even remotely “dark” aspects are the distinctly Freudian moments when Johann adopts his bat alter-ego and when Bella brandishes a pair of scissors, with the distinctly implied threat of emasculating her husband to prevent any further lapses on his part.

Otherwise this is an overtly jolly romp, full of comic dancing waiters and can-can girls, well cast and characterfully executed by all concerned. Alessandra Ferri (Bella) and Massimo Murru (Johann) dance expertly and command the stage. Their comic moments - of which there are many - are enhanced by the contribution of Luigi Bonino (Ulrich) who is made up to emphasise his Charlie Chaplin-like persona. It's all been designed - and is here performed - as an obvious, if perhaps rather inconsequential and superficial, crowd-pleaser. On that level La Chauve-souris is a triumphant success.
It’s also lots and lots of fun, but not, in all honesty, up there on the level of Petit’s most striking and memorable works such as Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, Carmen (1949) or Turangalîla (1968).
Minor Petit, then: Petit-lite.
Or, as the French would probably not put it, Petit-petit.

Rob Maynard
Minor Petit, then: Petit-lite.