THE WALTZ MAY SEEM to us the most decorous of dances, but two centuries ago many saw it as the vortex of sin. In 1816 London’s The Times proclaimed its civic duty “to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion,” a sentiment that was echoed throughout much of Europe.
Hedonistic Vienna, however, fully embraced it, building enormous dance halls (the Apollosaal held 6,000 patrons) and elevating its first great composers—Johann Strauss, Sr. and Joseph Lanner—to at least demi-god status. Their heir was Johann Strauss, Jr., who propelled the waltz to its zenith in the operetta theaters as well as the dance parlors.
The years leading up to Die Fledermaus had challenged the powerful Austrian Empire, which endured revolutions and recessions, military defeats and political embarrassments. Not surprisingly, escapist entertainment reigned supreme at the box office. Strauss’s first stage success, Indigo, was based on “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” The Gypsy Baron, his last big hit, was a goulash of Hungarian royalty, Hussars, gypsies, long-lost wives, buried treasure, a Turkish pasha’s daughter, and a filthy rich pig farmer.
Die Fledermaus was different. It offered audiences something more potent and longer lasting than escape—reassurance in tremulous times, along with an everyone- can-follow-it recipe for contentment: “Happy is the person who accepts that which can’t be changed.” Vienna saw itself onstage, where contemporary characters encountered (mostly) real-life issues.
The all-knowing Dr. Falke hovers over the action, orchestrating it as payback for a practical joke played on him earlier by long-time pal Gabriel von Eisenstein. Rosalinda, Eisenstein’s wife, and Adele, their ambitious maid, join Falke’s conspiracy, and the clueless husband is soon hilariously trapped.
Strauss’s music is glorious from overture to finale. There are wonderful solos of course, but the ensembles are particularly memorable. There’s the Act I trio, during which the Eisensteins and Adele shed minor-key crocodile tears about their supposed fates but can’t suppress their excitement about the upcoming champagne-fueled party they soon will attend.
At the festivities Eisenstein romances a masked “Hungarian Countess,” who is none other than Rosalinda. During their “Watch Duet,” a waltz turns into a gallop as hearts beat faster, especially when they take each other’s pulse, hand on heart.
Best of all, is the second-act finale which begins with a lively hymn to champagne followed by a slow waltz blending nostalgia with a near-Utopian vision of the future (“Let us all form a great union of sisters and brothers!”) and ends allegro with the swirling “Fledermaus Waltz.”
Joy is unconfined as the curtain falls. Falke has his revenge, the Eisensteins rekindle their mutual passion, and Adele attracts a wealthy sponsor for her fledgling stage career. Only champagne could have made it all possible!
Des Moines Metro Opera presents Die Fledermaus
June 23, 24*, 29, July 7, 12, 15*
Mark Tiarks began his professional opera career as a stage manager and stage director in DMMO’s 1978 season. Since then, he has been Artistic Administrator for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Producing Director of Court Theatre, General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, and Director of Planning and Marketing for the Santa Fe Opera.