I promised you two Strauss posts this week. Last Saturday I talked about the Theater an der Wien. Today it will all about Johann Strauss’s most famous operetta: Die Fledermaus, which premiered on this day back in 1874.
Johann Strauss composed 16 works for the stage, most of which were performed for the first time at the Theater an der Wien.
Die Fledermaus (The Bat) was Johann’s third operetta. He composed it in his home in the Hietzing suburb of Vienna. A plaque on the house commemorates this.
The libretto for Die Fledermaus was written by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée. But it was not an original concept.
In 1851 a play by Julius Roderich Benedix, Das Gefängnis (The Prison), had its première in Berlin.
About 20 years later Le Réveillon by Henri Meilhac and Ludocvic Halévy, who had provided libretti for Jacques Offenbach, was performed at the Théâtre du Palais Royal in Paris. The play was based on Benedix’s.
Max Steiner, director of the Theater an der Wien, had the script of Le Réveillon translated for the Viennese stage by Karl Haffner. A “réveillon”, a New Year’s Eve supper party, was not thought suitable for Vienna and was replaced by a ball. What else? Then it was up to the playwright and composer Richard Genée, who had worked on Strauss’s previous operetta, to finish the libretto. And the rest is music history.
Die Fledermaus is about a man, Gabriel von Eisenstein, who is sentenced to spend some time in prison but doesn’t want to go. Instead, he goes to a ball at Prince Orlofsky’s with his friend Falke. Eisenstein doesn’t know that he’s being set up by his friend for having played a prank on him some years before. Adele, Eisenstein’s maid, allegedly gets a letter from her artist sister to join her at Orlofsky’s for a ball. In fact, this is all part of Falke’s plan. Eisenstein says goodbye to his wife Rosalinde and maid pretending to go to prison. Not long after he left Alfred, Rosalindes former lover and singing teacher brings her a visit. When the prison director Frank comes to the house to take Eisenstein to prison, he is led to believe Alfred is the husband and takes him along.
Upon his arrival, Eisenstein is getting acquainted with Orlofsky’s customs. Falke hasn’t only arranged for Eisenstein and Adele to go to the ball, but he also invited the prison director and Eisenstein’s wife to come. None knowing of any of the others’ presence. They are all unrecognizable. Eisenstein does recognize Adele’s shriek but in the magnificent Mein Herr Marquis, he is led to believe she couldn’t possibly be a maid. A little later a Hungarian countess arrives (Rosalinde) and the womanizer Eisentein makes his move in Dieser Anstand, at the end of which Rosalinde takes hold of his pocket watch. At the ball Eisenstein is known as “Marquis Renard” and prison director Frank as “Chevalier Chagrin”. Under the influence of alcohol, they befriend eachother. At the end of the evening they all bring an ode to champagne and drink to their acquaintances. At six in the morning Eisenstein and Frank rush off.
The operetta ends in the prison the morning after the ball. Prison director Frank returns to find his warden Frosch drunk and Alfred driving everyone mad with his singing. On request of Alfred, Frosh summons Dr. Blind, Eisenstein’s lawyer. Adele and her sister arrive and ask Frank to help Adele launch her career as an actress. When he wants to know if she has what it takes to become an actress Adele reassures him. When Eisenstein rings the bell, Adele and her sister are rushed to one of the cells. Eisenstein has difficulty to make director Frank believe who he actually is. Frank tells Eisenstein that Alfred had been very amorous towards Rosalinde the previous night and had kissed her when leaving. Eisenstein is enraged, takes the lawyer’s clothes, wig and glasses and puts them on. Rosalinde arrives too and Eisenstein puts her and Alfred on the spot without initially letting on who he is. When he disguises himself, he accuses his wife of being unfaithful to him. Waving the pocket watch in front of her husband’s face, Rosalinde makes clear that not she but he had been cheating.Finally, the guests from the ball and Falke arrive at the prison and Falke explains that he had organised whole thing as revenge for the practical joke Eisenstein had played on him by leaving him out and about dressed as a bat after a party a few years earlier. Rosalinde forgives her husband and Prince Orlofsky promises to support Adele’s acting career. All ends well.
I have seen many performances of Die Fledermaus in my life. As a child my sister and I had a season ticket for the operetta season at our local opera house and it was often performed there. I’ve also seen various televised versions and have various recordings of it. Having seen it at the Volksoper in Vienna a couple of times, took me back to my childhood: great performances.
When I was in Vienna in the summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to go and see Die Fledermaus at the Theater an der Wien. That is quite something for a Strauss-obsessed person like myself. But what a disappointment it turned out to be. The theatre was beautiful but the performance wasn’t. I’m not going to go into details but if that is the way people are introduced to the operetta, I’d rather they weren’t.