NEW YORK — Back in the good old dark ages, Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" meant something special at the Metropolitan Opera.
The classic Viennese comedy gave some very serious singers--Welitsch, Tucker, Svanholm, Kullman, Guden, Munsel, Kirsten, Steber, Stevens, Curtin, Novotna, Resnik, Peters and Soderstrom, to name just a few--a welcome opportunity to be funny. Maybe even sexy. They sang in English, of course. Everyone understood the jokes, not to mention the innuendoes.
On New Year's Eve, the event often became extra-special. Surprise visits from otherwise uninvolved stars added luster to the masquerades of Prince Orlofsky's ball in Act II. Sometimes Rudolf Bing, himself, made an Alfred-Hitchcockesque appearance among the supernumeraries. It was glamorous, and it was amusing.
Forget all that. The Met treats "Fledermaus" these days as a quirky throwaway ritual. The ritual looks and sounds, moreover, just as tawdry on New Year's Eve as it does on any other tired night at Lincoln Center.
The current production, introduced last year, features cozily handsome, needlessly lavish period sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. It may be significant that the most enthusiastic applause Thursday was inspired not by any breathing artist but by a snazzy turntable that moved the action from anteroom to salon during the second act non-celebration.
The problems with this chronically un-batty "Fledermaus" began, however, in the pit, where Manuel Rosenthal buried his head in the score most of the night and waved his arms frantically. In the process, he ignored the needs of both the composer and the singers. He also trampled the sensuous, insinuating, hesitating impulses of the wondrous score.
The aging and erratic nominal conductor from France gave us a sloppy "Fledermaus," minus Schlag and minus Schwung . Ergo, it was no "Fledermaus" at all.
Otto Schenk, the echt Austrian stage director, proved long ago in Vienna and London that he knows his way around the Eisenstein household and environs. Here, unfortunately, he fell victim to classic klutzery, to a house that is patently too large for the fragile comedy, and somebody's ludicrous decision to perform the dialogue in English but the songs in German.
The polyglot scheme doesn't just jolt stylistic sensibilities. It suggests, insultingly and snobbishly, that the spoken words are important but the sung ones are just incidental gibberish.
Something still might have been salvaged by a cast of elegant vocal virtuosi. Unfortunately, the Met assembled a collection of routiniers , most of whom happened to find the vocal lines uncomfortably high.
The one happy exception to the dismal rule was Barbara Daniels. The American soprano, a Rosalinde with credentials from the Vienna Volksoper, offered ample demonstrations of wit, suavity, self-mockery and, wonder of wonders, a flamboyant, well-sung csardas.
Her somewhat strained but affable Eisenstein turned out to be a debutant imported for the occasion from secondary German houses: Claudio Nicolai. Judith Blegen squeaked her way through the evening as an Adele bereft of charm as well as coloratura glitter. Tatiana Troyanos repeated her incomprehensible and vocally uncomfortable Orlofsky, David Rendall was the stock-tenor Alfred, and Michael Devlin the pallid Falke. Franz Mazura as the warden Frank tried, in vain, to make a sweet aura of besotted bonhomie compensate for faded vocalism.
For the spoken lines, comic charades and cautious political interpolations of Frosch the jailer, the Met enlisted none other than Sid Caesar. Even with the isolated, ear-splitting benefit of a body mike, he made a modest impression, contenting himself with stand-up Borscht-Belt routines rather than anything approaching a characterization.
And so this "Fledermaus" lumbered onward and downward. Some old acquaintances should be forgot.