Opera on the air: 'Fledermaus' (delightful), 'Butterfly' (much recorded)
Johann Strauss's ''Die Fledermaus'' is the quintessential party operetta. No wonder it has become the traditional New Year's Eve entertainment in so many cities around the Western world.
In the US ''Fledermaus'' has become something of a TV tradition - the Metromedia network telecast the Covent Garden production several seasons back, and has repeated it regularly ever since.
Enter PBS, with a new (to this country) performance, conducted by the late Karl Bohm, boasting the late Wagner tenor Wolfgang Windgassen as the ever-bored Prince Orlofsky (a role usually the province of mezzos and rarely successfully attempted by men). It was actually done in 1974, and the soundtrack appeared here on the London label (now deleted).
The show, part of the Great Performances series (PBS, Monday, Dec. 28, check local listings for times), has a wonderful look to it. Otto Schenk has directed with great emphasis on common sense and believability. He even steps into the production as the besotted jailer Frosch in the last act. Bohm is in fine form, leading a sprightly, bubbly performance, thus the aural/visual foundation is first-rate.
Eberhard Wachter's Eisenstein is consistently the most convincing performance throughout. He is the only one who actually seems to be singing along with the soundtrack so that the all-too-evident dubbing is not as preposterous as it is with most of the others. Artistically, Gundula Janowitz was, in truth, born to play a pompous, charmless bourgeoise, so casting her as Rosalinda is visually ideal, though the top register rings out with its typical raw edge.
Renate Holm makes an active, if slightly matronly Adele, and Windgassen is positively brilliant as the jaded, weary Orlofsky. Veteran Erich Kunz is a splendid Frank. Heinz Holecek is the Dr. Falke, the man whose ambitious revenge for a social embarassment is the plot of this favorite work.
There is a tremendous amount of dialogue, and the subtitles by Sonya Friedman (though Ursula de Nemenskeri-Kiss is given specific credit for the English translation) give only the briefest outline, often letting line after line pass by with a few terse words.
So much for trying to approximate the rich humor of so much of this text. But that is a small quibble, and the performance froths delightfully away.
Anna Moffo is the host on this occasion, and she brings ingenuous earnestness and some charm to her task. And at the end of the evening, we even get a snippet of her in a film of Kalman's ''Die Csardasfurstin'' as a bonus.
How nice it would be to have a whole series of these operetta films on PBS sometime!
Meanwhile, Puccini's ''Madame Butterly,'' to be broadcast on radio live from the Metropolitan Opera Saturday, Dec. 26, (check local listings), has not lacked for recorded attention.
A classic recording with Toti dal Monti and Beniamino Gigli from the Rome Opera, 1939 (available on Seraphim IB - 6059) is one of the earliest that remains readily available.
But for all practical purposes, the best ''Butterfly'' remains the one Renata Scotto recorded in the late '60s, with Carlo Bergonzi as Pinkerton, Rolandi Panerai as Sharpless, and Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra (Angel SCL-36567). She was in splendid voice, and her attention to nuance and shading made this a complete interpretation, ably partnered by Bergonzi and Panerai. Her remake (CBS 35181) finds her in good form, Placido Domingo at his loudest and most general, and conductor Lorin Maazel at his most chilled and mannered.
Those who wish to give the Met $125 can get an off-the-air performance with Lucia Albanese that is unlike any other you will ever hear. She is heart-rending throughout, and her colleagues (including James Melton) give her fine support, with Pietro Cimara the astute conductor.
Herbert von Karajan is almost the star of his second ''Butterly'' recording (London OSA-13110), but his cast responds superbly to his sumptuous, expansive ways. They include Mirella Freni as a beguiling Butterfly, Luciano Pavarotti as Pinkerton, and Christa Ludwig as a particularly appealing Suzuki, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays extravagantly well. Leontyne Price's ''Butterfly'' is one of her best recorded performances - alive, alert, imposing. Richard Tucker is the forthright Pinkerton in a performance, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, that is large-scale and thrillingly sung (RCA LSC - 6160).
Victoria de los Angeles was noted for her affecting Butterfly, and a good recording exists of her mid-'50s views of the role, which offers Giuseppe di Stefano, the remarkable Tito Gobbi (as Sharpless), and an expert Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting the Rome Opera forces (Seraphim IC - 6090). Her stereo remake has less to recommend it, despite the presence of Jussi Bjorling (in one of his last recordings). Another performance of interest is Renata Tebaldi's, with Bergonzi and the young Fiorenza Cossotto as Suzuki, Tullio Serafin conducting (London OSA-1314).
Maria Callas's controversial portrayal is available on a La Scala recording (Angel CL-3523), and a mighty interesting one it is, too. Karajan is in fine form, giving her uncommonly fine-tuned support, and Nicolai Gedda is a marvelous Pinkerton. Anna Moffo's version is very lightweight (RCA VICS-6100), Eleanor Steber's (Odyssey Y3-32107) is of note for those who wish her so-big voice to encompass this role.