By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Johann Strauss the Younger (1825-99) had long established himself as the undisputed Waltz King of Vienna before he embarked on the composition of his sixteen operettas. Initially he appeared overawed by the achievements of Offenbach, the creator of Nineteenth Century operetta, and by the lesser but no less popular slick productions of Franz Von Suppe.
Strauss's first operetta in 1871, Indigo, was well received but its somewhat tragic libretto and enormous length of four hours inhibited the flow of Strauss's genius. As his friend and former schoolfellow Anton Langer wrote: “... refrain from the big production operetta .... an operetta from your pen needs but your music. Look for a good libretto."
That good libretto for Strauss's second attempt, Die Fledermaus (The Bat) emerged in a roundabout way. Derived from Roderick Bendix's German comedy Das Gefaengnis (The Prisoner), a French script Reveillon (Dinner Time) produced by Offenbach's librettists Meilhac and Halevy had been secured sight unseen by Strauss's assistant Max Steiner. Whether Offenbach ever accepted or rejected the French book is unknown, but Steiner soon concluded that it was totally unfit for the Viennese stage. At his request Karl Haffner and Richard Genee reworked the French book to produce that scintillating and joyous situation comedy now set in Vienna and with its former supper scene upgraded to a grand masquerade ball filled with flirtatious intrigue, rippling laughter, pathos and joy. It likewise furnished Strauss with an unrivaled chance to captivate his beloved Viennese with waltz, ballet, aria, and Hungarian czardas. Die Fledermaus waltz rivals in universal popularity his Beautiful Blue Danube.
Die Fledermaus, while often bracketed with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier as representative of masterly comic opera, falters slightly not by reason of Strauss's music but because its talented librettists lacked the genius of Da Ponte and Hoffmanthal. Nevertheless, Brahms later remarked to Hanslick that Strauss's orchestra reminded him of Mozart. lndeed, Brahms greatly admired Strauss's music. Even Eduard Hanslick could write in his restrained way: "His masterpiece Die Fledermaus certainly owed its enduring and extraordinary success to its charming music but the latter would have been unthinkable without the lively plot."
Strauss composed Die Fledermaus in forty-seven days. It premiered in the Theatre-an-der-Wien in Vienna, April 5, 1874. Enjoying unprecedented success, the operetta disappeared from the boards after only sixteen performances due to the serious financial depression afflicting Vienna at that time. Although it provided the perfect tonic for the depressed Viennese there was simply no money available for the populace to attend it.
Mahler, however, recognized its worth while directing the Hamburg opera where he staged it. The Imperial Opera of Vienna finally produced it twenty years later on October 28, 1894, giving it its first night performance - previous ones had been in the afternoon. The night performances signified the elevation of Die Fledermaus from the status of an operetta to that of a comic opera. It has since been staged in all the great opera houses of the world.
The American Premiere took place in a remarkably short time after the initial Viennese performance, in New York City on November 21, 1874. In 1950-51 and subsequently the Metropolitan Opera produced highly successful revivals in an English translation by Howard Dietz . This evening's performance is sung in the English version of Ruth and Thomas Martin.
This "crowning glory of the Viennese operetta," as it has often been called, supplanted Offenbach and Von Suppe, and summarizes from overture to concluding ensemble the limpid art of Johann Strauss the Younger.
To summarize the plot: a Banker, the Baron von Eisenstein, has been sentenced to a short jail term for insulting a minor official. His notary friend, Dr. Falke, persuades him to postpone beginning his term till the morrow and to attend a Masquerade Ball at Prince Orlofsky's palace. Falke intends to use the occasion to wreck vengeance on Eisenstein. During the previous year Eisenstein and Falke had attended a similar ball, Falke being costumed as a bat. After the ball the two emerged into the street drunk. Eisenstein forced Falke to weave his way home in his costume in broad daylight much to the merriment of the populace.
Eisenstein deceives his wife Rosalinda by telling her that he is now off to jail and departs instead for the Ball. Shortly thereafter Frank, governor of the jail, and his cohorts arrive to pick him up. Alfred, a friend, now spending an amorous evening with Rosalinda, avoids compromising her when he agrees to impersonate Eisenstein and go off to jail.
Falke contrives with Orlofsky's connivance to see that Frank, the maid Adele, and Rosalinda are guests at the Ball. Rosalinda, masked of course, is introduced as an Hungarian countess. Eisenstein makes his way among the ladies, even flirting with his own maid Adele. The countess, in a subsequent flirtatious tete-a-tete with her husband, skillfully lifts his watch from his pocket which she holds for a future reckoning. Frank meanwhile pays court to Adele.
The whole comic situation is compounded the next morning at the jail when Adele arrives to secure assistance from Chevalier Chagrin (Frank). Eisenstein comes to commence his prison term; Alfred seeks his own release, and Rosalinda appears to propose a divorce. The jailer Frosch, gloriously drunk, and a tipsy Frank lock up Adele and her companion. When all is in an hilarious uproar, Falke arrives with the other guests from the Masquerade to declare the whole escapade was the Bat's vengeance for the previous year's incident. Amity once again reemerges, all are pacified and reconciled. Eisenstein alone is compelled to serve his jail term.
Berlin staged Die Fledermaus not long after the initial Viennese closing. Here it was acclaimed and received one hundred consecutive performances, establishing it once for all in the repertoire. The reviewer in a Berlin paper summed up the work appropriately: "With Die Fledermaus Strauss has become sovereign ... in his operetta pulses noble fiery blood, I he same sunny joy of life as in his dance rhythms. Strauss has given the libretto a seductive sparkling musical garment."