Die Fledermaus That Roared

Photo courtesy Czech Opera PragueMost times you go to Prague, it's with a backpack; this is your one-stop for aging bridges, real Disneyland-style castles, weird communist relics, dilapidated hostels and proto-Wiskey Biscuit members busking. Now, finally, Prague comes here and you dress up: for Czech Opera Prague, a mishmash of stellar singers from the National Theatre of Prague, the State Opera of Prague, a Bulgarian Orchestra from Sofia and Ballet Arabesk, who will perform Die Fledermaus at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. It is a match well-made: the company is stellar, and for those for whom opera is a chore—even Samuel Johnson described it as “irrational entertainment”—Johann Strauss Jr.'s operetta is perfect. By definition, it means the singers speak like normal people, rather than using recitative—that almost ridiculous, in-between “opera voice”—for dialogue.

Die Fledermaus, which has nothing to do with mice, follows Rosalinde and her husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, to a fabulous party hosted by the bored Prince Orlofsky. Both Rosalinde and Eisenstein have a tendency to look elsewhere for action. She prefers the sometimes-slimy tenor Alfred (women dig tenors), who peppers his songs with rip-offs from other operas. Eisenstein flirts shamelessly with his maid Adele, who attends and sings the well-known “Laughing Song.” He also inadvertently tries a few lines on his wife, who is disguised as a Hungarian countess, but to no avail. She's got him garroted for later, though like many an opera, the plot untangles at the end and he apologizes.

At the time of its premiere in 1874, Die Fledermaus reflected the stresses and strains of a classist Europe and was considered quite spicy and daring. A little harmless flirtation between the classes may seem tame now; but though loosened, many of the same cultural restraints remain in place today. Show me a woman in Laguna Beach who'd be pleased if her housekeeper borrowed her new Armani to wear to a benefit and hit on her husband—as Adele does to her mistress Rosalinde in Fledermaus.

Its plot aside, the thing to look—or to listen—for in this silly story of revelry and love gone awry is of course the lovely music of waltz king Johann Strauss Jr. The composer, who was rather prolific in the operetta genre (he also produced much sillier operas about pig farmers and gypsy barons), weaves gorgeous themes, like the lovely Bruederlein chorus—and he inserts additional polka music within the opera for a mini-ballet during the party. His vocal parts are significant too: his Rosalinde, played by Jitka Svobodova or Susanne Geb, sings an aria, the Czardas, that delves into the high coloratura—yet also requires a heavier voice. The usually petite coloratura soprano part of Adele (Anna Klamova-Janotova) also has several famous arias. And like Rosalinde, Strauss' Eisenstein (played by Jan Jezek) is given an interesting range, one that falls between a classic baritone and a tenor. All told, this is a formidable vocal test for its players.

And the Czech have every intention of making it a regular thing. The producer, Giorgio Lalov, tells me the company plans to visit the U.S. every other year from now on. Soon there will be no need to backpack to Prague at all. And Fledermaus is just so damn fun—though, my sources say, best on New Year's Eve, a great night for a comic operetta. It's about opulence, rich food, lovers, champagne—all the antithesis of sleeping your way through Prague in dingy, smelly hostels. “The atmosphere,” Lalov says, “is champagne and caviar dreams.” And everyone likes those.


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