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Corrina Connor ‘Die Fledermaus lands in Victorian London’

2014 December 17

Corrina Connor is in the first year of her PhD research, which focusses on the performance of masculinities and nationality in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. She is a student at OBERTO, the opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University, where she is supervised by Dr Alexandra Wilson.  Originally from New Zealand, Corrina studied performance and music history and Victoria University of Wellington, before completing an MPhil in Musicology and Performance at Oxford University where she researched the sacred music of Pelham Humfrey. She regularly contributes programme notes to the London Handel Festival and the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, among other organisations. She tweets from @corrinacellist. Her blog is http://corrinaconnor.wordpress.com/. You can email her at 13093039@brookes.ac.uk.

James Hamilton Clarke

A week before Christmas 1876, the first London performance of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus took place at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square.  It was more than two years after the premiere at the Theater an der Wien on 5 April, 1874, and the first occasion on which a Strauss operetta would be performed in London. However, when on 17 December 1876, The Observer proclaimed that at the Alhambra ‘will be produced the comic opera “Die Fledermaus” … adapted for the English stage by Mr Hamilton Clarke,’ its readers would not have been unfamiliar with continental operetta.[1] The same newspaper column announced that ‘On Saturday night [23 December] the Royalty will reopen with “Orphée aux Enfers,”’ demonstrating that, just as in Vienna, Strauss’s operetta emerged into a world dominated by Offenbach.

Die Fledermaus was Strauss’s third Operette for the Theatre an der Wien, and in addition to its commercial success, it gripped the ideological imagination of critics who were concerned that there was no Viennese composer fit to inherit the legacy of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.  Eduard Hanslick believed that this development could occur by looking to native folk music and dances – forms which the Strauss family had raised to a transcendent level, and which Hanslick had included in his hierarchies of the musically beautiful. Despite liking Offenbach’s music, Hanslick was worried by the un-Viennese, Parisian cynicism of his operettas.[2] So, when Johann Strauss began writing operettas for the new managers of the Theater an der Wien in 1871, it seemed an ideal solution to the Parisian menace which had begun with a German-language production of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène as Die Schöne Helena in March 1865. Such was its success that Frederic Strampfer, director of the Theater an der Wien, negotiated with Offenbach to give 25 German-language premieres of Offenbach’s operettas between 1865 and 1882.[3]

In London, Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers had first appeared at the Haymarket Theatre on Boxing Day 1865, adapted by R. Planché as Orpheus in the Haymarket, and Offenbach’s comic operas had been a constant presence in London’s theatres thereafter. In June 1886, La Belle Hélène, adapted as ‘Helen, or Taken from the Greeks’ and Barbe-Bleu (‘Bluebeard Repaired’) had opened at the Adelphi and Olympic Theatres, the latter piece arriving in London just a few months after its Paris premiere on 5 February.  Offenbach’s Les Brigands (‘Falsacappa’) opened at the Globe on 22 April 1870; La Roi Carrotte followed at the Alhambra on 3 June 1872, and Vert-Vert dominated the St James’s season from 1874. The appeal and energy of Offenbach’s melodies seized the attention of the critics, but it did not escape their attention that initially these theatres’ orchestras were not accustomed to playing such demanding music, as this review of Orpheus in the Haymarket shows:

The music of Offenbach, nearly the whole of which is performed, achieved great popularity for the piece in Paris, and is so sparkling and so full of melody that it is likely to do the same here. Much of it has already been made familiar through various means to the London public. The Haymarket company is not an operatic one, but additions have been made both on the stage and in the orchestra … no doubt a few nights’ practice will give that lightness of manner which is the true tone of the bouffes Parisiennes, and all that is wanting to render the performance completely effective.[4]

By 1876 when Strauss’s Die Fledermaus opened at the Alhambra, the sparkling filigree of Offenbach’s music would have been more familiar to London’s theatre musicians, although Johann Strauss’s waltzes and polkas presented their own challenges. The Observer critic was not diverted by Strauss’s score, and preferred to praise the musical interpolations of Mr Hamilton Clarke:

Dance rhythms are prevalent throughout the work, and the composer has done little or nothing to prove himself capable of producing those choral effects and dramatic ensembles which are necessities in operatic music of any pretensions. The concerted music is feeble, and the orchestration, though the most meritorious part of the composition, is this and common-place. The new ballet music composed by Mr Hamilton Clarke for the Hungarian Ballet … is in remarkable contrast to that which it is associated, being full of bright, characteristic melody, well harmonised and enriched by masterly orchestration.[5]

The critic did admit, however, that Die Fledermaus was a ‘genuine, if not enthusiastic, success’[6] but inspired little ‘serious criticism’, as it also suffered from a ‘weak libretto.’ In 1874, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick – normally an advocate for the genuine volkstürmische spirit of Strauss’s music – had also complained of Richard Genée’s libretto that ‘It remains an insoluble puzzle that anyone could have music for such words, and that the musical inspiration in the composer’s head doesn’t die away before it can cling to such platitudes.’[7]  Looking back, we must ask how faithful had the translator, Charles Hamilton Aide, been to Genée’s libretto. What did the audience see and hear at the Alhambra?

Charles Hamilton Aida- image 149811

The published libretto reveals surprises: some of the text is a direct translation of Genée, but Aide also made significant alterations. In the Die Fledermaus with which we are familiar, the action begins with Rosalinde’s admirer, the tenor Alfred, serenading her from off-stage. Then the Eistensteins’ maid, Adele enters to begin the monologue in which she reads a letter from her ballet-dancer sister, Ida; Ida suggests that Adele borrows one of Rosalinde’s gowns to attend a party given by Prince Orlofsky. In Aide’s version, Act I begins with a scene in a ‘Pavilion in the chateau of the Baron Essersmith’, and a chorus sings ‘On this, the Baron’s natal day, Joyously we meet’. There is neither sight nor sound of Alfred, but a tete-a-tete between Adele and the lawyer, Dr Blind ensues. And, who is this ‘Baron Essersmith’? In addition to writing new dialogue and new music, the team of Aide and Clarke had changed the dramatis personae: Gabriel von Eisenstein becomes Baron Essersmith the notary Dr Falke becomes Count von Falke, and Aide invents a meeting between Essersmith and Falke. Most extraordinarily, the celebrated en travesti role of Prince Orlofsky disappears, and the character becomes an opera singer called Hilda.

Further alterations occur in Act II: in Genée’s libretto, Rosalinde attends Orlofsky’s party thinly disguised as a Hungarian countess; Eisenstein fails to recognise his wife, but becomes smitten by the mysterious ‘Hungarian’ when she performs her Csardas, ‘Klänge der Heimat’, as a paean to Hungary. In Aide’s version it is Adele who feigns the character of a Hungarian princess whilst Rosalind appears disguised as a Polish woman, who sings, anachronistically, a Csardas praising Poland.

Another significant change occurs in Act III, when all the characters are gathered in prison. In Genée’s version, Alfred is hauled into gaol in Act I, after he is assumed to be Eisenstein. Then, in Act III, Eisenstein reports for his own prison sentence and confusion occurs as he is already supposedly locked up. Here, Aide provides another surprise: Alfred turns out to be the long-lost husband of the opera singer Hilda.

There is one notable feature that Aide’s translation of Die Fledermaus shares with two other adaptations of its dramatic source, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Helevy’s vaudeville Le réveillon (1872). Using the pseudonym F. Latur tomline, W. S. Gilbert made a translation of Le réveillon as the two-act farce Committed for Trial, which was performed at the Globe in 1874 (therefore pre-dating the premiere of Die Fledermaus). He later revised the farce, transforming it into a three-act piece called On Bail for a first performance in 1877. Like Aide, Gilbert made substantial alterations, and Meilhac and Helevy’s en travesti character Prince Yermentoff (the prototype for Prince Orlofsky) becomes the Duke of Darlington, a foppish stage-door Johnny, played by a man. Why did Aide and Gilbert remove the element of gender ambiguity provided by the Yermentoff/Orlofsky character? The 1870s were not a time of excessive stage puritanism, and it was not uncommon for women to play male roles. Carolyn Williams has written that the purpose of ‘female-to-male cross-dressing … was to soften or etherealize certain masculine roles …. the powerless waifs and orphans in melodrama would often by played by a woman.’[8] Williams cites Maggie Brennan’s portrayal of Pip in W. S. Gilbert’s adaptation of Great Expectations as an example of this phenomenon in the 1870s. Women were, of course, cast as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, so to say that squeamishness or respect for propriety compelled Gilbert and Aide to make this particular change seems to be an over-simplification.

To return to the reception of Die Fledermaus in London, published criticism of the 1876-1877 performances at the Alhambra is scarce, and after the production closed, Die Fledermaus was not seen again in London until 1895 when it was performed in German. Partly responsible was the new partnership of Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, whose Trial by Jury (initially produced as a curtain-raiser to an English language production of Offenbach’s La Périchole at the Royalty Theatre in March 1875) was immediately recognized as a new style of comic opera. Offenbach revivals continued but there were fewer productions of new Offenbach works after Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership solidified. Die Fledermaus disappeared from London. The extent to which its disappearance was the result of critical and popular responses to an emerging style of ‘native’ operetta may echo the conditions which prevailed when Strauss began writing operettas as nationalist corrective to Offenbach’s dominance of the genre in Vienna. The changes and interpolations made by Hamilton Clarke and Aide, particularly those pertaining to matters of gender and national identity, are intriguing, and have inspired my ongoing interest in this research.

 


[1] Anon, ‘At the Play’, The Observer, 17 December 1876, London (UK)

[2] Dana Gooley, ‘Hanslick on Johann Strauss JR: Genre, Social Class, and Liberalism in Vienna’, Rethinking Hanslick: Music, Formalism, and Expression, eds. Nicole Grimes, Siobhán Donovan, Wolfgang Marx (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press 2013), pp. 92-93

[3]Camille Crittenden, Johann Strauss and Vienna: Operetta and the Politics of Popular Culture, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006), p. 71

[4]Anon. review, ‘Haymarket Theatre’, The Observer, 31 December 1865, London (UK)

[5] Anon. review, ‘At the Play’, The Observer, 24 December 1876, London (UK)

[6]Anon. review, ‘At the Play’, The Observer, 24 December 1876, London (UK)

[7] Peter Kemp, The Strauss Family: Portrait of a Musical Dynasty (Tunbridge Wells: Baton Press 1985), p. 98

[8] Carolyn Williams, ‘The Masculine Woman and the Feminine Man: Gender Parody in the Savoy Operas’, Papers, Presentations and Patter: A Savoyards’ Symposium, ed. Ralph McPhail Jr, (The International Gilbert and Sullivan Association 2012), p. 23

 

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