Die Fledermaus

Music by Johann Strauss, Jr.
Libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée

Sung in English with projected titles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermissio

That Cold Dish

by Anne Arenstein

If justice—whether delayed, denied, or fulfilled—is the theme for this year’s Cincinnati Opera season, another underlying motif for all these works is revenge, which can hardly be deemed justice. But no other opera has as much fun with revenge as Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus.

Strauss’s librettists Carl Haffner and Richard Genée could not have chosen better than to adapt a French farce by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the writers responsible for the libretti for many of Offenbach’s hugely successful comic operas.

Disguises and amorous intrigues are the perfect accompaniment for Dr. Falke’s scheme to get back at his friend, Eisenstein. Two years earlier, they had attended a costume ball, and on the way home, Eisenstein unceremoniously dumped Falke out of the carriage. Waking the next morning in a public park, still clad in his bat costume, Falke was the subject of public ridicule.

It’s not an experience easily forgotten, even if this is a farce. Director Robin Guarino, the J. Ralph Corbett Professor of Opera at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, makes her Cincinnati Opera debut staging this production. For Guarino, Falke’s humiliation was the starting point for her and the production team. “In our discussions, we asked, does the punishment fit the crime, and where do you tell the story?” she said. “We decided to use the time period just after World War I and to have everyone staying at this slightly faded but still opulent Viennese hotel, on the order of The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the entire story plays itself out.”

The first act is in the hotel lobby, the second-act party is set in the hotel’s grand ballroom, and the third act takes place in a holding area for gamblers unable to pay off the house. The hotel setting also allows a wider arena for Falke to stage his revenge. All the hotel staff and guests are in on the plot, and Frank is no longer the jail administrator, but the head concierge who helps mastermind the proceedings.

Guarino was inspired by the Viennese author Stefan Zweig’s writings, especially The Society of the Crossed Keys, a selection compiled by film director Wes Anderson, who drew directly from Zweig in creating The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zweig’s haunting, evocative stories convey overripe, sensual lifestyles, along with a code of honor that World War I destroyed. But even after the Great War ended and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more, Vienna retained its own sense of style. And revenge fantasies never fail to survive.

Although Dr. Falke is described in the libretto as “a notary,” (Dr. being an honorific given to certain professionals), Guarino sees him as a disciple of Freud, skillfully orchestrating the setup, the hooks, and, finally, the revelation. “The music conveys Falke’s pleasure in every step, and he knows Eisenstein well enough to manipulate his weaknesses,” she explained.

Falke lures in Eisenstein by inviting him to a costume party (shouldn’t Eisenstein’s warning lights be flashing?) given by the Russian émigré Prince Orlofsky. At the party, Eisenstein is introduced to Orlofsky (Eisenstein is drawn to royalty), Eisenstein’s wife’s maid Adele, disguised as an actress (Eisenstein has been after Adele), and Eisenstein’s own wife Rosalinde, masquerading as a Hungarian countess who knows a thing or two about the Csárdás (and pocket watches) as well as her husband’s penchant for beautiful women. And to complete the set-up, the guests are eager to hear Falke’s account of the bat escapade, but it’s Eisenstein who jumps in to regale the crowd.

There’s nothing dark or mysterious about it, according to Guarino. Falke achieves his goal of embarrassing Eisenstein, and in front of a far larger audience. “Falke says something like ‘I have the tools to totally unravel your life. Or…we could have some champagne.”

Those words will be spoken in the first performances of Robin Guarino’s English language adaptation of the spoken text, translated from the German by David Pountney, Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera. Since the 1874 premiere, Fledermaus’s dialogue has morphed into a verbal torte, with layers of self-referential in-jokes, depending on the era and locale. Guarino streamlined much of the repartee, especially in Acts II and III, and even the speaking part of Frosch the jailer was incorporated into the role of Frank, the hotel concierge.

Guarino assures the audience that nothing will be lost in translation. A pared-down libretto means getting to Strauss’s glorious score more quickly—and what a score it is. The exuberant waltz first heard in the overture became one of Strauss’s signature tunes, and love songs, duets, and large ensembles have all the buoyancy and wit needed to convey the delight in sending up Eisenstein’s pretensions.

Thanks to its vibrant score, Fledermaus is one of very few Viennese operettas still performed. It was never a failure; it was only withdrawn after the first sixteen performances due to a scheduling conflict. After the issues were resolved, Fledermaus returned for an extended run.

As the wily bat takes wing, it’s giving nothing away to say that the show ends with champagne. Which is also best served cold.
Anne Arenstein’s writings appear regularly in CityBeat. She has also written for Cincinnati Magazine, the blog Parterre Box, and Santa Fe Opera. Arenstein’s interviews can be heard on WVXU’s Around Cincinnati. In 2009, she was an NEA Fellow in Classical Music and Opera Journalism.