In any other normal December, the opera houses of Europe, particularly in German speaking lands, would be filled with productions of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. But not so this year. Tokyo’s New National Theatre, has become one of the few houses (alongside some in Russia) to uphold the seasonal tradition this year. Performed under strict Covid-19 guidelines both on the stage and in the auditorium, the Tokyo audience enjoyed the fifth revival of Heinz Zednik's popular production from 2006. It must be one of the most revived in the house’s current repertory.

Die Fledermaus
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

The production featured an international cast, many of them well versed in the operetta genre. The singers and the conductor from abroad had to undergo a 14-day quarantine after arrival before they could take part in the rehearsals. Some parts of the production and choreography had to be adapted to adhere to distancing and contact regulations on stage, so there were no shaking of hands, no kissing, hugging, nor waltzing (well, almost none). Perhaps audience members familiar with the production may have missed the various intimate moments on stage, but the intimacy was certainly not missing from the music.

The Eisensteins were played by two echt Austrians, baritone Daniel Schmutzhard and soprano Astrid Kessler, both making their house debuts. Schmutzhard, with his pleasing lyric baritone, played a youthful and frivolous Gabriel, displaying a natural sense of silliness and comic timing. As Rosalinde, Kessler looked like a bored housewife flirting with a younger tenor (sang by house regular Kota Murakami) in Act 1, but in the party scene, she disguised herself as the masked Hungarian countess and impressed with her fiery rendering of the Csárdás. In the dialogues, they both cleverly incorporated some local jokes – Rosalinde threw in a joke about being infatuated with the “Japanese tenor”, and Gabriel ordered plenty of sushi, sashimi and sake for his “magnificent dinner” before being sent to prison, raising some laughs from the polite Japanese audience.

Daniel Schmutzhard (Eisenstein), Maria Nazarova (Adele) and Astrid Kessler (Rosalinde)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Ukrainian soprano Maria Nazarova, a regular at the Wiener Staatsoper, charmed as the lively and zippy maid Adele, and displayed remarkable vocal agility especially disguised as “Olga” in the Act 2 party scene. Dark-hued mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina made a commanding house debut as Prince Orlofsky. Perhaps compared to the rest of the cast, she hasn’t had a lot of exposure to operetta yet, but she play the Russian prince with suavity and vocal allure. Ludwig Mittelhammer sang a chummy, good-natured Falke – hardly the vengeful Fledermaus of the story, but more of a harmless prankster. Prison warden Frank was solidly performed by Piotr Micinski.

Miraculously amidst the pandemic, there was only one cast change in this production – Kurt Rydl, who was billed to play the jailer Frosch, was replaced by Peter Gessner, a German actor who has lived in Japan for many years. He made the most of his drunken soliloquy in Act 3, throwing in jokes in fluent Japanese as he topped himself up with shochu (traditionally a working class spirit).

Astrid Kessler (Rosalinde) and Daniel Schmutzhard (Eisenstein)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Production-wise, it’s pretty traditional but the set (Olaf Zombeck) is airy and stylish, and beautifully lit (Yuji Tatsuta). As the director explains in his original notes, the elegant design incorporates elements of art deco, which was influenced by Japanese art. In particular, the art work and soft colours on the backdrop (Eisenstein’s house, Orlofsky’s mansion) one sensed the influence of ukiyo-e flat perspectives. Also, each of the dresses of the female chorus members (as guests at the ball) was exquisitely designed in 1920s style, complete with pretty headdresses. In Act 2, five pairs of dancers added flamboyance to the ball scene.

In charge of the proceedings in the pit was Italy-based American conductor Christopher Franklin, who paced and controlled the drama with fluency and ease. The Tokyo Philharmonic’s sound may not be quite Viennese, but they played with brightness and élan, conjuring up the feeling of expectation in the overture. As always, the New National Theatre Chorus sang with perfect unity and harmony, even under distancing rules.

Indulging in Strauss’ uplifting music, including the catchy Champagne song, it was easy to forget the current woes, and I walked out of the auditorium with a smile on my face. But at the same time, I felt a tinge of guilt that I could enjoy this frothy feel-good story when so many theatres worldwide are silenced over this festive period. Also, I could not but pray for the safety of all the performers and staff (who are regularly tested). The production moves to Sapporo Arts Cultural Theatre for a further two performances next week.