The Eternal Fledermaus

An ill-conceived, forgettable travesty revival at Theater an der Wien

Philipp Himmelmann’s staging of Die Fledermaus was intended to be innovative but the result was closer to chaos | Photo: Armin Bardel/TadW

Even the “long-run” shows on Broadway can’t compare. Die Fledermaus can look back on 136 years of uninterrupted performances in Vienna. Phantom of the Opera, the longest running show New York has ever seen, has “only” been playing since 1988. Fledermaus is a work of unmitigated genius, a work so successful that it overshadows everything else its creator Johann Strauss ever wrote, except perhaps the Blue Danube waltz. The number of times it has been performed in Vienna cannot even be estimated; it must number in the five-figure range.

Theater in the 19th century, as it is today, was always looking for a hit. Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, Austria’s Shakespeare, was a master of amusing the Viennese. And when the first work of light musical theater was performed in Vienna in 1860, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, the audiences went crazy over the new style. Operetta was just what was needed: entertainment pure, with buffoonery, satire and a large dose of the risqué.

From its first performance in 1874, Fledermaus just glittered. Pearls of melodies froth up like bubbles of champagne. Just saying the word “Fledermaus” in Vienna brings songs to mind, just like mentioning the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady in the U.S. It has just the right balance of melancholy and comedy, the feelings are intense but never tragic. Warm and sparkling, spirited and vivacious, it is a game of desire, flirtation and swagger.

Our central figure is one Dr. Falke, the tale, his revenge. The reasons are left until the end: After a masquerade ball and still dressed up in a bat costume, the poor man was left in the forest dead drunk by his friend Eisenstein and had to walk home the next morning under the ridicule of everyone on the way. Since then he has been the laughing stock of the district: people call him Dr. Fledermaus (Dr. Bat) instead of Dr. Falke (Dr. Falcon). Even between friends, that goes one step too far. So Dr. Falke thinks up a plan for revenge of the best sort: an amorous prank and public humiliation. He pushes his friend into an adulterous affair: with none other than his wife Rosalinde, masquerading as a Hungarian countess. And naturally, everyone involved has their own side affairs going on.

After so many years, Fledermaus is rich with musical traditions that are not part of the score. But these rubati are what make it live: the swing, the lilt, the hesitation. Even if it were possible to determine which were there from the start and which creeped in over the decades, without them, much of the charm would be lost.

Composed, it is said, in 42 days during the summer of 1873, it was an intense combination of efforts by Strauss and Richard Genée, music director at the Theater an der Wien. Strauss wrote the melodies, Genée created most of the instrumentation. But they didn’t become Rogers and Hammerstein, whose names are always mentioned in one breath. The honors have never been fair: Strauss has gone down in history as a genius, and Genée has been forgotten.

But is such a feat possible, 42 days of unending inspiration? It has been contended by certain musicologists that Johann actually got much, if not all, of his melodic inspiration from the sketchbooks of his composer brother Joseph, who had died four years earlier. Joseph was renowned for his melodic gift. In fact, no trace of unfinished works by Joseph has ever been found. And although there are piles of sketchbooks in Johann’s hand, all punctiliously studied by masses of music historians, there is no trace of a Fledermaus melody. Indeed, grounds for speculation, but perhaps only a musical myth and the stuff of mystery stories.

For “better families” in Vienna, seeing Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve is a beloved ritual, a tradition that if missed would be like passing up the champagne at midnight. But actually the work has nothing to do with New Year’s (or Christmas, as one might be led to think by one of its sources, a French vaudeville called Reveillon). 

This summer’s Fledermaus, back at its original home of the Theater an der Wien, in the middle of the July heat wave, reminded us of this. But sadly, the production was a mere pro secco version of this Moët & Chandon operetta.

Although Philipp Himmelmann’s staging was intended to be innovative, with the boxes of the Theater an der Wien continuing in reflection around the entire stage, it wasn’t that long ago, certainly not long enough to forget, that we saw the very same set concept in Orfeo ed Euridice, with the Musikverein boxes on the stage. And although it’s fun to watch the marvelous Arnold Schoenberg Choir acting silly, having a gawking, squawking audience on stage the whole time, pretending to ignore the real audience (us), first felt like a gag and after awhile, simply got boring. Falke/Frosch falling into the orchestra pit – oh, I guess we are supposed to laugh – was just poor slapstick. There were empty champagne bottles, but bubble bath flowed through the door. And how can a comedy of mixed-up identities be even slightly plausible, if everyone is always there to watch the next hero slip into the next disguise? The audience didn’t get it.

The very worst: the endless strip-tease, with its combination of musical chairs and strip poker. It got very tedious the third time around. We already know that Rosalinde (Nicola Beller Carbone) is gorgeous. She doesn’t have to undress again. Her luscious voice is enough. Will the true soubrette raise her hand? With all the demure ladies disrobing on stage, it was sometimes hard to find Adele (Juanita Lascarro, who was lovely, although maybe the Viennese nuance was missing).

And I certainly don’t need to see any more men’s white feet or beginnings of bellies; I really would rather just listen to Kurt Streit (Eisenstein) and Florian Boesch (Falke). They are both very handsome in tails, fine actors, wonderful singers, and they certainly don’t need to romp around like naughty teenagers.

No boyish charm this time for Orlofsky, usually a “Hosenrole,” a man’s role sung by a woman. Countertenor Jacek Laszczkowski may be able to act, but his voice was raw and didn’t react in some registers.

Lost under all the frenzied activity on stage, the music managed to raise its lovely head successfully only when I closed my eyes. The RSO was again magnificent, obviously enjoying their new chief conductor in spe Cornelius Meister.

Thankfully, the first performance of the season at the Volksoper is, you guessed it, Fledermaus. Four performances in September, and at least once in every following month. And if we want to be traditional, there are the New Year’s Fledermaus performances at the State Opera. With real champagne. Prosit!

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