In Die Fledermaus Marital Fidelity Gets Bashed, Surrounded by Beautiful Music
Photo by Felix Sanchez Re-set to 1930s Manhattan, Johann Strauss II's creation retains its charm
If Houston Grand Opera's sparkling production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") isn't the finest vintage grand cru champagne, it is nonetheless from a very good year. It looks great in the glass, the bubbles tickle your nose, and by the end you will be pleasantly intoxicated.
Although re-set to 1930s Manhattan, via a fantasy Art Deco Hollywood, Strauss's eternally fresh operetta remains firmly planted in its true home, fin-de-siècle Vienna (1874), during the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where splendid dance halls could accommodate thousands of patrons who waltzed the nighttime away and pretended that Vienna was still the center of the universe.
Although the great society balls that made Vienna the envy of the world had stalled after the economic "great crash" in 1873, there were still plenty of public dance halls where pleasure could be had. The king of dance bands was Herr Strauss the younger, who earlier had formed his own orchestra in competition with his illustrious father, a revered composer who had conquered Europe with his polonaises, polkas, and, of course, waltzes. Their rivalry was intense, but when dad died, soon after he had written the famous "Radetsky March," son Johann II combined both orchestras and continued to conquer not only Europe, but Russia and America with his haunting songs. Perhaps the most financially secure composer of the era, certainly the man whose melodies were most played, Strauss II was revered not only by the public, but by his famous contemporaries. When titans Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner sang his praises and wished they had written "The Blue Danube," the son had risen.
Melody poured out of him, hundreds of dances. French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach (Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène), whose satiric pieces had triumphed internationally, suggested to his friend that he turn his felicitous hand to the theater. Strauss balked, but his wife urged him on, and soon a second, successful career opened up. At first, Strauss didn't concern himself with the librettos, often composing the songs without knowing exactly where they were to fit in the story until he saw the dress rehearsal. But with Fledermaus, he got a really lively script by Haffner and Genée, based on a French comedy by the team who was soon to write Carmen for Bizet. Strauss's musical genius went into overdrive.
Marital fidelity gets a bashing in this bracing tale. Although husband Eisenstein must serve a five-day prison sentence, he receives an invitation to Prince Orlovsky's swanky masked ball. He's all too anxious to get there to meet the girls, so he lies to his wife: he'll go to the party first, then go to jail. Meanwhile, wife Rosalinde has been besieged by former lover Alfredo, a singer (who arrives on a window washer's scaffold), and is about to relent when she, too, receives an invite and a costume. Her sassy maid Adele gets asked also, and she lies about a dying grandmother to get out of work and attend the party. Everyone's on the make. All this is an elaborate ruse set up by Eisenstein's friend Falke, who's out for comic revenge for a prank Eisenstein pulled on him at a previous party. Adultery and champagne - what a combo, how Viennese.