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Guests in the House

PATRICK DILLON remembers some great parties and some distinguished visitors at Prince Orlofsky's.

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A gala Die Fledermaus at Covent Garden, 1990, with Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2014
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Ethel Merman, a Fledermaus party guest at NYCO, 1980
© Beth Bergman 2014
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Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills in gala form at New York City Opera, 1980
© Beth Bergman 2014

I was a twelve-year-old purist when I ordered, from a downtown Detroit department store, my very first Fledermaus. Just a handful of recordings were available then, and I quickly ruled out two of the classics, Clemens Krauss's and Herbert von Karajan's first. They were single-channel oldies, and I was young enough to be a no-qualms stereophile. I opted for Karajan's second, with the plush Vienna Philharmonic and a roster of Staatsoper habitués. But another big decision remained, since that Fledermaus came in alternate guises — the un-gussied-up operetta on two LPs, or the same performance with a glittering "Gala sequence" filling a third. For a preteen purist, the choice was ganz einfach. 

Five decades later, I've still never owned that gala Fledermausthough I've grown awfully fond of its guest turns. And even though the operetta's premiere, at Vienna's Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1874, didn't rely on extraneous stars, there are gala performances that in retrospect, older and a little more pliant, I wish I'd had a seat for. I'd like to offer (in ascending order) my personal top ten.

10. Decca's "Gala sequence" recording, 1960.  Here's a purist's nightmare — a performance that never really happened in conventional time and space. The brainchild of Decca's mad-genius producer John Culshaw, its gimmick was for Prince Orlofsky — in the guise of Regina Resnik — to (in Culshaw's words) "introduce guest artists who will each sing a popular piece of his or her choice.... Actually the various pieces are being recorded in Vienna, London, Rome and other locations according to the availability of the artists." Two novelty numbers  — Birgit Nilsson's "I Could Have Danced All Night" and Giulietta Simionato and Ettore Bastianini's dueling "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" — are sui generis, but the real vocal treats lie elsewhere, in Joan Sutherland's dizzying "Il bacio," Lehár from Renata Tebaldi (an Italophone "Vilja") and Jussi Björling's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (in — mostly — Swedish). This was Björling's very last studio recording, and it's a beauty. So is Leontyne Price's "Summertime," prefaced by a droll exchange (in German) with Resnik: "Welcome, Leontyne Price! What lovely aria are you singing for us?" "Do you know 'Summertime,' by Gershwin?" "Yes — but Gershwin hasn't been born yet!" "I'm singing it anyway." 

9. Metropolitan Opera,  New Year's Eve, 1955.  When did Die Fledermaus with star turns become a New Year's Eve tradition? When Rudolf Bing presented a new English-language production at the Met in 1950, its third performance happened on December 31, but the music stuck strictly to Strauss. So it did, too, for the next three New Year's Eves, though 1953 offered a special appearance by Alicia Markova, dancing the "Acceleration Waltz." It was the 1955 New Year's Eve performance that first veered from the Straussian track, with a three-number guest spot by Renata Tebaldi — "Io son l'umile ancella," Turina's "Cantares" and a concluding Sicilian folk song. Short this "gala sequence" certainly was, but who wouldn't have found even eight minutes of prime-voiced Tebaldi a delicious holiday bonbon? 

8. Royal Opera, Covent Garden,  New Year's Eve, 1983.  Framed by an entertaining bilingual production (the dialogue is largely in English) starring Kiri Te Kanawa and Hermann Prey as the Eisensteins, this party offered a daffy array of talent — Prey strutting more Strauss (from Der Zigeunerbaron) and balancing a walking stick and top hat on his upper lip; Charles Aznavour singing "She"; a musical turn by a pair of Britain's beloved panto dames, Hinge and Bracket. But brackets of a different sort were the choicest bits — Sir Frederick Ashton's couture choreography for the "Explosions Polka" at the gala's start and the "Voices of Spring" waltz to close it. The gorgeous latter was gloriously danced by Merle Park and Wayne Eagling and deserved an encore. 

7. San Diego Opera, October 19, 1980.  Here's a gala Fledermaus without an official "gala sequence," but it is very special nonetheless: it's the last of a run of performances that paired, for the very first time onstage in an opera together, Joan Sutherland (as Rosalinde, with her real-life Eisenstein, Richard Bonynge, in the pit) and Beverly Sills (as Adele). This was Sills's last performance in a complete opera, and even without the guest stars, who could deny that with her on hand for the laughing song and Dame Joan for the czardas, this party of Orlofsky's was quite festive enough? 

6. Metropolitan Opera, April 14, 1956.  The Met's 1955–56 season was unique in boasting two gala Fledermice. This one followed Tebaldi's New Year's Eve turn at season's end, and it featured four singers rather than just one. That three of them are firm favorites of mine, and the fourth was very much in his element, gives the evening a special appeal. Hilde Gueden, freed of her usual Act II masquerade as Rosalinde, sang "Voices of Spring"; Cesare Siepi sang "Musica proibita"; and Björling delivered a pair, balancing Tosti with Grieg. I love them all. And while I'm not an unabashed Otto Edelmann fan, his rendition of Benatsky's "Ich muss einmal wieder in Grinzing sein" surely offered the audience quick, easy and pleasurable transport to the city of his, and the opera's, birth.

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Regina Resnik as Prince Orlofsky
Louis Mélançon/OPERA NEWS Archives

5. Metropolitan Opera, New Year's Eve, 1998. The Met endured a twenty-year stretch without a New Year's Eve Fledermausfrom the last season of the old Garson Kanin production in 1966 to the first of Otto Schenk's staging in 1986. Neither of those had a "gala sequence" — for that, the Met audience had to wait another eight years. It was a starry lineup (Renée Fleming, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey, among others, in all-American fare). Forced to choose, though, I'd take the 1998 show, which started in Vienna with Thomas Hampson singing Gräfin Mariza's "Komm, Zigany" and wound up in New York City with On the Town's "New York, New York," with Hampson joined by Earle Patriarco and John del Carlo. Right before that, Stephanie Blythe charmed (and danced with) Robert La Fosse with "I Can Cook Too" — observed by the people who'd put the words in her mouth, special guestsBetty Comden and Adolph Green. In between, Dawn Upshaw sang Rodgers and Hart, Susan Graham sang the Gershwins (with a very classy accompanist in André Previn), and Paul Groves hoofed with an umbrella for "Sing­in' in the Rain." 

4. Royal Opera, Covent Garden, New Year's Eve, 1990.  Having played Rosalinde to Sills's Adele in 1980, Joan Sutherland was scheduled to repeat the role for her own retirement engagement a decade later. As it turned out, she merely played honored guest at Orlofsky's ball in the course of a pleasant, if unstarry, repertory performance; but she brought along two old pals, Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti, to share the limelight and the tears — and the TV cameras. Dame Joan, in emerald tulle, can't manage her Semiramide duet with Horne with the offhand panache of yore, but I'd defy anyone to remain unmoved by her closing "Home, Sweet Home," in which even the mushy diction induces profound nostalgia. At curtain calls, she returns for further hoopla, with Prime Minister John Major leading the ovations from a box and Pavarotti beating her original Fille du Régiment drum. It was that kind of evening. 

3. New York City Opera, October 27, 1980.  Eight days after that last Fledermaus in San Diego, Beverly Sills resumed her customary role of Rosalinde for an "official" farewell that dispensed with Acts I and III altogether and got right down to the very gala matter at hand. Kitty Carlisle's Orlofsky quickly ceded emcee duties to Carol Burnett for a parade of stars whose eye-popping variety leaves other gala arrays way behind. Burnett sang Jerry Herman; Dinah Shore, Renata Scotto and Eileen Farrell sang Harold Arlen (but not together); and Leontyne Price sang Marvin Hamlisch's "What I Did for Love." Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, John Alexander and Donald Gramm sang, too. Cynthia Gregory danced a solo, Heather Watts and Peter Martins a pas de deux; Bobby Short played the piano and James Galway the flute. And there, reprising two of their greatest hits, were the twin queens of old Broadway, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, with "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." Finally, clutching the shoulders of her accompanist, Charles Wadsworth, Sills bade her public the most poignant of adieux with a Portuguese folk song, the first thing she'd learned as a little girl from her one and only voice teacher, Estelle Liebling. A full career had come full circle. 

2. Metropolitan Opera, April 22, 1972.  If Sills could dispense with its opening and closing acts, why not dispense with Fledermaus altogether? That's exactly what Sir Rudolf Bing did — almost — for the finale of his twenty-two seasons as the Met's general manager. If, technically, this doesn't qualify for my list, I've got reasons for making an exception. There, for one, was Regina Resnik as Orlofsky, singing the Prince's couplets with specially tailored lyrics as "Chacun à Bing's Goût." And there I was, too, a city block away at the top of the Family Circle, a lucky winner of the standing-room lottery held earlier that day. Bing was to the Vienna manner born, and I couldn't help thinking of him as a latter-day Orlofsky (even though his personality more closely resembled Dr. Falke's), hosting the most amazing ball I'd ever attended. From the stage wings emerged a parade of famous singers — Peters, Stratas, Moffo, Arroyo, Sutherland, Kirsten, Caballé, Bumbry, Crespin, Price, Tucci, Dalis, Elias, Lorengar, Rysanek, Zylis-Gara and (crowning the evening, medals flashing) Birgit Nilsson, in a blazing Salome finale.

1. Metropolitan Opera, February 16, 1905.  From the faux Fledermaus I attended to the real one I most wish I had — the Met premiere. Marcella Sembrich's Rosalinde all by itself offers ample enticement, but then there's Orlofsky, the eminent Edyth Walker, with eight years at Vienna's Hofoper under her princely belt, and his guest list. Maria de Macchi — a Met one-season wonder — sang "Bel raggio lu­singhier." Anton Van Rooy, the Met's reigning Wotan and Sachs, anchored a "Tyrolean quartet." Aïno Ackté sang a Grieg song, and Antonio Scotti, in padded Falstaff garb, a tripping "Quand'ero paggio." The Rigoletto quartet came next, with an amazing foursome — Louise Homer, Enrico Caruso, Eugenio Giraldoni and, as Gilda, none other than Lillian Nordica. What could top that? Well, maybe Olive Fremstad warbling through Delibes's "Les filles de Cadix," or the Faust trio with another one-seasoner, tenor Francisco Nuibo, and the perennial Emma Eames and Pol Plançon. What lover of this legendary era of singing wouldn't, well, kill to hear all these voices live, on a single night? All that and a full Fledermaustoo! Had it miraculously been recorded in Full Frequency Stereo Sound, even a twelve-year-old purist might have opted for that third LP. spacer

PATRICK DILLON is the New York correspondent for Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to OPERA NEWS. 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4