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The victorious flight of Die Fledermaus to its exalted height as the world’s most popular operetta is due not only to the effervescent genius of its music, but also to the powerful way in which it has spoken and sung directly to succeeding generations about our deeply rooted desire to break free of societal constraints and sip the heady champagne of pleasure and fulfillment. Its protagonists may be liars and cheats, but there is something heroic about their quest to turn their fantasies into reality. Die Fledermaus and Vienna are inextricably linked and one of Vienna’s most glittering stars, Sigmund Freud, pointed the finger at bourgeois marriage as a locus of societal discontent, shocking the world by suggesting that women’s erotic drives are as powerful as their husbands’. Rosalinde could well be one of Freud’s hysterical women, trapped in a double standard marriage where the man is free to find fulfillment outside the marriage bed but the persona of the respectable wife and mother precludes any extra-curricular erotic satisfaction. Dr. Falke seems a bit like Dr. Freud as he invites Rosalinde, Eisenstein, Adele and Frank to the dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein to transcend their quotidian selves, just as a Freudian analyst battles to free his patients from the grip of their repressions, using their dreams as his most powerful weapon.
In this Fledermaus, a giant version of Eisenstein’s babe-magnet pocket watch looms above the action, swinging back and forth like a hypnotist’s path into the subconscious. And just as the pendulum in our psyches swings endlessly back and forth between repression and freedom, society has also historically swung between these different urges. Hence, in this Fledermaus, the ponderous 19th-century Victorian bedroom of Act I cracks open to let in the fresh air of Act II’s 1920s-ish celebration of loosening up, freedom and creativity. This, in turn, inevitably yields to the reactionary crackdown on subversive degeneracy in Act III’s prison, where the lenient old school mentality of the all-too-susceptible prison warden, Frank, is challenged by the newly militarized police force personified by the jailer Frosch, an avatar of the fascistic impulse which swept Europe after the heady years between the wars.
Although the hedonistic waltzes of Die Fledermaus ultimately sweep away its darker connotations in a tsunami of champagne, let’s not forget that its premiere in 1874 took place barely a year after the Black Friday crash of the Viennese Stock Exchange, during a major economic depression. History endlessly repeats itself, and Fledermaus will never go stale.
(centre, l – r) Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde, Michael Schade as Gabriel von Eisenstein and Ambur Braid (kneeling) as Adele in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Die Fledermaus, 2012. Photo: Chris Hutcheson © 2012