Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899) was the most famous member of the Viennese Strauss family that became synonymous with the waltzes, gallops, and other spirited dances of 19th-century Austria. Johann Sr. (1804-1849), a talented composer and conductor, had originated the family tradition as Kapellmeister for court balls. Although he encouraged his three sons to choose professions other than music, all three carried on the family heritage in one way or another. None of these folks were closely related to German opera composer Richard Strauss.
In 1844, Johann Jr. established his own dance orchestra, playing primarily his father's music and his own. When his father died in 1849, Johann combined the two orchestras and toured throughout Austria. Strauss married singer Jetti Treffz in 1862 and it was she who sustained his interest in writing operettas, which he might otherwise have abandoned before getting to Die Fledermaus.
Place in the Repertoire: Although Strauss had already written operettas prior to Die Fledermaus (e.g., Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871), Der Karneval in Rom (1873)), they were not especially noteworthy. Strauss immediately recognized in the libretto for Die Fledermaus an uncommon opportunity. He set about composing the music with great dispatch, cloistering himself in his villa, and finished the score in just six weeks. Perhaps as a result of this uninterrupted effort, the opera has a seamless theatrical consistency of an especially high order. The music is delightful and, indeed, the overture can stand on its own as a delightful concert piece. Strauss used the musical score effectively to milk the theatrical tension for all it was worth, by gradually building up the resources from solo pieces and duets into larger ensemble climaxes.
Subject Matter in Brief: The story of Die Fledermaus was based on a play written by Roderick Benedix in 1851, called The Prison. It was a classic comedy of errors involving mistaken identities. In 1872, French writers Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (not the composer, Fromental Halévy) created a comedy based on The Prison which they entitled Le Réveillon. When the manager of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna purchased the rights to Le Réveillon, he already had Strauss in mind to compose the music. Since Meilhac and Halévy were the same duo that had written the brilliant libretto for Bizet's Carmen, the script came with excellent credentials. The same pair of French writers had also written several scripts for French composer Jacques Offenbach. I always say that nobody writes farce better than the French. The scrip for Die Fledermaus is the funniest one I've ever encountered for an opera, but manages, at the same time, to be utterly exhilarating.
For this review, I'm choosing to say less rather than more about the plot because part of the enjoyment for first time viewers will be discovering the various twists and turns. Gabriel von Eisenstein (Bernd Weikl), a wealthy Viennese merchant and womanizer, has had a run-in with the law that is going to cost him eight days in jail. His wife, Rosalinde (Lucia Popp), expects to miss her husband very little, since Alfred (Josef Hopferwieser), her old lover, is waiting nearby for an opportunity to rendezvous. Dr. Falke (Walter Berry), Gabriel's bosom buddy, drinking pal, and fellow prankster, suggests that Eisenstein have one last night out before his jail time, carousing at a party being thrown by the wealthy Russian Prince Orlofsky (Brigitte Fassbaender). He'll have a readymade fib to cover his night out by telling Rosalinde that's he's heading down to the jail to start serving his time. Meanwhile, the Eisenstein's chambermaid, Adele (Lucia Popp), gets a letter from her sister urging her to try to get the night off so she, too, can attend Orlofsky's ball. So, that’s the general set-up, but what follows is a magnificent comedy of errors that results in all sorts of tangled knots.
Quality as a Work of Art: Die Fledermaus is an utter masterpiece of comic opera, operetta, or light opera – whichever you prefer to call it. It exists on the boundary between full-fledged opera and something of lighter weight. None of that much matters because this piece combines the delightfully infectious strains of Johann Strauss Jr., nicknamed "The Viennese Waltz King," with multilayered comedy (verbal wit, farce, and physical comedy), and grand finales that are truly exhilarating. Die Fledermaus has long been a staple of New Year's Eve celebrations in Austria but is sometimes also used for that purpose at New Year's Eve Galas at opera houses in other parts of the world. That's only partly because the action transpires around the turn of the year. The other reason is that Die Fledermaus really seems to capture the flavor and spirit of New Year's Eve festivities. The performance recorded her was taped, appropriately enough, on a New Year's Eve.
Musical Performances: Since Die Fledermaus is equally at home in theaters, Volksoper houses, and the grand opera venues throughout the world, it has received countless presentations varying widely in style and quality. Although this work can be well-served, at times, by the kind of light voices that frequent the comic opera houses or even Broadway, many music lovers, myself included, feel that Die Fledermaus gets its finest realizations when sung by world class opera singers of full power and range. Acting skills, however, must not be sacrificed in the process of casting great voices. The cast for this 1980 recording at the Weiner Staatsoper is, in my judgment, the finest ever assembled. The singing is consistently magnificent, but the acting and choreography is every bit as superlative.
Slovak-born Austrian soprano Lucia Popp (1939-1993) began studying medicine for a year before switching to a career as an actress and singer. She began her voice studies relatively late in life, at the Bratislava Music Academy. She started as a mezzo-soprano but, remarkably, developed a high upper register quite suddenly, during her training. Her professional opera debut occurred in 1963 as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute. She soon earned opportunities to perform at Covent Garden and the Met, in 1966 and 1967 respectively. She gradually expanded her repertoire from Mozart to Strauss and Janácek. Popp was still at her career peak when she died suddenly in 1993. In Die Fledermaus, Popp succeeds in making her potentially stuffy character adorable, which is no easy assignment.
Slovak soprano Edita Gruberová was born in 1946 in Bratislava, Slovakia. She debuted as Rosina in The Barber of Seville in 1968 in Bratislava. Her successes have included the roles of Manon, Lucia, Violetta, Zerbinetta, Gilda, and Oscar. She brings a vibrant personality to the comic roles in the soprano repertoire. Her voice has strength, ability, and clarity. As Adele in Die Fledermaus, Gruberová is in total command of the part: her singing is lovely and her acting perfect. She is very sympathetic as the chambermaid who suddenly discovers that she's become the belle-of-the-ball.
Mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender born in 1939, in Berlin, is one of my personal favorites among opera singers. Her bloodlines for opera are strong, as the daughter of an actress mother and a professional operatic baritone father. As a youth, Brigitte secretly practiced singing before sending an audition tape to her own father, who was, at the time, Director of the Opera Department at the Nuremberg Conservatory. He promptly took her on as a student! Fassaender is especially well-known for her "trouser-roles," notably Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, but she's also played the very feminine roles of Carmen and Maddalena in Rigoletto. She's been quite successful singing the lieder of Liszt, Schubert, and Brahms. Fassbaender's acting is highly effective not only when she is center stage, but even more so when she's reacting to the performances of the other soloists.
Austrian singer Bernd Weikl was born in Vienna in 1942. He began as a lyric baritone but gradually transitioned into the dramatic repertoire as he acquired more vocal power. His voice has excellent vibrato and can reach well into the deep baritone range. He is handsome in a rugged sort of way and can mange roles that need some character portrayal, although his acting range is somewhat confined. Weikl made his professional debut in Hanover in 1968 as Ottokar in Der Freischütz. Weikl is widely admired in such roles as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. For Die Meistersinger, Weikl holds nothing back in his spirited physical performance, dancing up a storm and even carrying two ladies on his shoulders, at one point.
Austrian bass-baritone Walter Berry, born in 1929 in Vienna, was a delightful comic actor in such roles as Papageno, but was also highly effective in dramatic roles such as Figaro, Bluebeard, and Masetto in Don Giovanni. He had a creamy smooth bass-baritone voice. Berry passed away in 2000. Berry was married to singer Christa Ludwig for fifteen years, from 1956-1971. Berry was well-known for his performances of Mahler lieder. In Die Fledermaus, Berry delivers one of the best acting performances of the entire crew, along with a strong vocal delivery.
I have to mention the extraordinary acting performance of Helmut Lohner, as Frosch, the jailer. The physical humor he brings to the part is hard to believe and reminiscent of rubbery-legged Kramer on the Jerry Seinfeld Show.
Theodor Guschlbauer conducted the Choir and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper for the present recording. This orchestra consists of essentially the same musicians that populate the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – one of the world's finest.
Staging: Stage direction was provided for this production by Otto Schenk. The stage action is amazing and the choreography, by Gerlinde Dill, during the Finale of Act II is unforgettable. The comedy in this opera depends a lot on timing and Schenk squeezes the laughter tube dry. Die Fledermaus is fundamentally an ensemble piece and Schenk keeps it all moving like clockwork. The sets created by Gunther Schneider-Siemsen and the costumes designed by Milena Cananero are opulent.
Technical Aspects: This TDK recording of a production on the night of December 31st, 1980 at the Wiener Staatsoper in Austria is coded for all-region playback. The video aspect ratio is full-screen (4:3). The sound format is LPCM Stereo. The performance language is German. Optional subtitles are offered in English, French, German, and Italian. The opera's running time is 169 minutes. There are no extras on the DVD.
Bottom-Line: Die Fledermaus is the most hilarious opera I've encountered, especially when performed with precision time by an excellent set of actors. Musically, it's delightful and sometimes even downright exhilarating. This production from New Year's Eve of 1980 offers an exception cast, exuberant performances, and sumptuous sets.
You can easily access my other opera reviews using the following lists:
Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Metalluk's Twenty Best Pre-Romantic (Baroque & Classicism) Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty-five Best Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty Best Non-Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Thirty Best Operas of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Metalluk's Best Opera from Each Decade of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good Date Movie
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age