As Iford Arts opens its 2019 season with two performances of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, starring Simon Butteriss at Bath Guildhall on 18 & 19 May, the legendary comic baritone, director and Dr. Blind on the night, looks at the Brits relationship with operetta.
A BRITISH BAT
By Simon Butteriss
The British don’t get operetta. We don’t go to see it, so it’s rarely produced. Is it too frivolous for our chilly Protestant hearts? We still go to see Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s clean, wholesome fun, isn’t it? Is it the sex, then? Does operetta lack good British moral fibre? Let’s have a look.
A marriage has gone stale; he lies to her and she is, frankly, economical with the truth to him. Their servants are clever and manipulative and there is a plot afoot to take revenge on the master’s misdeeds. He is caught trying to seduce a woman whom he fails to recognise as his disguised wife and is confronted with her apparent infidelity, but all is happily resolved.
Sounds moral enough to me. But then that’s the plot of The Marriage Of Figaro, which even English audiences recognise as a masterpiece.
It’s also, of course, the plot of Die Fledermaus. Why, then, leaving the music aside, is one regarded as a miracle of psychological truth and the other as trivial tosh?
Well, there are differences in the way the plot is handled. You might point out that Rosalinde is much keener to get into bed with Alfred than the Countess is with Cherubino, but in the third Figaro play, the Countess is the eponymous Mère Coupable and has had a child by Cherubino. Rosalinde doesn’t go nearly that far.
You might also point out that Figaro’s trick is altruistically designed to rescue the Countess’ marriage while Adele is only angling for an evening off, and Falke’s trick is malicious. But actually, Figaro’s real motives are both selfish and malicious too: he wants ruthlessly to expose the Count in order to prevent him from seducing his fiancée.
The emotional climax of Figaro, though, sees the cornered Count obliged to ask the Countess to forgive him, which, in a musical exchange of astonishing beauty, she does. The denouement of Fledermaus is rather less noble: Rosalinde neatly passes the buck to Eisenstein and he blames the Champagne.
But just because the Fledermaus protagonists are more emotionally cowardly doesn’t make the situation less morally interesting; in fact it embodies the thoroughly British moral code that it doesn’t matter what you do so long as you’re not found out. And it’s significant, rather than merely frivolous, that Champagne is blamed, since Champagne is, after all, the symbol of privileged decadence. It’s only with hindsight that we can see the French Revolution hovering over Figaro trouncing the aristocracy – it’s not in the play (or opera) at all. But Fledermaus, composed in the shadow of the devastating 1873 Stock Market Crash, sees the whole party actually move to the prison, a symbolic reminder of the possibility of social, or even eternal, punishment. The irony of an unearned happy ending subsequently suited Brecht until we were all thoroughly sick of it but the fact is, neither Count and Countess nor Eisenstein and Rosalinde are likely to revert to a happy marriage after the curtain has fallen.
In 1877, the year after Die Fledermaus first appeared in London, W.S. Gilbert wrote On Bail, freely adapted from Meilhac and Halevy’s Le Reveillon, the play on which Fledermaus had been based. It’s full of Gilbertian trademarks – orphans, elderly matrons are ‘crushed again’, musicians play on ‘The….violin? Wrong again – on the pier’ and, just as life without Yum-Yum, in The Mikado, seems absurd, here a synonymous euphemism tells us that ‘she was no longer his Fanny, she was another’s Fanny’. Clean, wholesome Gilbert, these double entendres remind us, sailed very close to the wind, and though in both Le Reveillon and Die Fledermaus, the unmissable party is given by a Prince, Gilbert, significantly, chose to set his party backstage, and though there is a Duke present, it is given by that most dangerously subversive of types, a Theatrical Manager. The Theatre, where social boundaries blur and the fabric of society unravels, thus becomes the presiding genius of the topsy-turvy morality of the piece. And at the end of both Le Reveillon and On Bail, the leading man asks the audience whether or not he should be forgiven, daring them, as Mozart and Da Ponte challenge us at the end of Cosi, to be hypocritical enough to cast the first stone.
Though the Lord Chamberlain was deprived of his blue pencil in the 1960s, the Drama is still considered a dangerous medium: films are censored, television has watersheds and watchdogs snap at the lightest profanities sneaking onto the screen or the airwaves. Filth, like Rabies and the Euro, is something we like to keep across the channel.
But the Theatre retains its power because it has always found ways round the bone-headed guardians appointed to protect us from Filth. Double entendre, the most delightful among them, was developed solely to do this. Thus Gilbert’s glittering satire retains its bite, equally for those who rejoice in his naughtiness as for those who see him as entirely clean and wholesome. But we only get European operetta in translation and those translations may sometimes be responsible for diminishing Champagne into Lambrusco. An intelligent version of Die Fledermaus, however, can surely be as psychologically truthful and, if you like, as morally rigorous, as an intelligent production of The Marriage Of Figaro. And, let’s face it, probably funnier. So we have chosen the delightful translation of John Mortimer, whose Rumpole of the Bailey was as much a connoisseur of vintage Champagne as his wily legal mind was equal to the most operatic of divorce suits.
Die Fledermaus, 18 & 19 May, Bath Guildhall