November 25, 2012

Fledermaus and Figaro: a case of operatic "Mini Me:


Are you into the Austin Powers spy movies with comedian Mike Myers?  No? Um, me neither, actually. However, I (your Humble Blogger) will go to any lengths to find pop culture analogies for the opera world, so let me refresh your memory (or acquaint you) with the character of Mini Me.

Austin and Mini: the big one is Mozart...
Austin Powers' nemesis was the evil Dr. Evil, (also played by Myers). At some point, Dr. Evil's henchmen made a miniature clone of him which he named "Mini Me". Played by diminutive actor Verne Troyer, Mini Me looked exactly like Dr. Evil - just smaller.

I have come to regard Johann Strauss Jr.'s sublime operetta Die Fledermaus as the "Mini Me" of another famous opera; an opera which, coincidentally, will close Virginia Opera's 2012-2013 season in just a few months: Mozart's "sublimer" comedy The Marriage of Figaro. (Note: "sublimer" is now a word; I declare it so.)

Even if you're familiar with both works, the similarities between Fledermaus and Figaro may not have occurred to you. But, as I'll point out, nearly every character in Strauss's comedy is directly based on a corresponding character in Mozart's masterpiece. Observe:

Fledermaus: Gabriel von Eisenstein is a likeable gasbag who, though married, is an inveterate skirt-chaser. Though he fumes with jealousy if he believes his wife unfaithful, he thinks nothing of hanky-panky with any attractive woman who crosses his path.

Figaro: Count Almaviva is a likeable gasbag who, though married, is an inveterate skirt-chaser. Though he fumes with jealousy if he believes his wife unfaithful, he thinks nothing of hanky-panky with any attractive woman who crosses his path.

Fledermaus: Rosalinde, Eisenstein's long-suffering wife, sets a trap for her husband to catch him in the act of being unfaithful. Disguising herself as a Hungarian countess, she allows her husband to make love to her unaware of her real identity. However, she is no saint: pursued by the amorous Alfred, she enjoys his attentions a bit more than a respectable married woman should.

Figaro: The Countess Rosina, Almaviva's long-suffering wife, sets a trap for her husband to catch him in the act of being unfaithful. Disguising herself as the maid Susanna, she allows her husband to make love to her unaware of her real identity. However, she is no saint: pursued by the amorous Cherubino, she enjoys his attentions a bit more than a respectable married woman should.

Fledermaus: Alfred, an operatic tenor, flirts shamelessly with Rosalinde, serenading her with the song "Trinke, Mädschen, trinke schön".

Figaro: Cherubino, a page, flirts shamelessly with the Countess, serenading her with the song "Voi che sapete".

Fledermaus: After Eisenstein has been humiliated in front of the entire cast of characters as his infidelity is revealed, he does the right thing, humbling himself and asking Rosalinde's forgiveness. She does so, but our appreciation of the "happy ending" is tempered by our realization that these patterns of behavior are never going to end.

Figaro: After Almaviva has been humiliated in front of the entire cast of characters as his infidelity is revealed, he does the right thing, humbling himself and asking the Countess's forgiveness. She does so, but our appreciation of the "happy ending" is tempered by our realization that these patterns of behavior are never going to end.

Fledermaus: Eisenstein's attorney is the officious and annoying attorney Dr. Blind, who gets laughs with a comic speech impediment: he stutters.

Figaro: Almaviva's notary is the officious and annoying Don Curzio, who gets laughs with a comic speech impediment: he stutters.

And I've saved a particularly interesting pair of characters for last; in this case, it's the differences between them that are intriguing.

Fledermaus: Rosalinde is served by her pert, likable, attractive chambermaid Adele.

Figaro: The Countess is served by her pert, likable, attractive chambermaid Susanna.

And the differences? Susanna is a character who lives at a time when the French Revolution was brewing, but not yet completed; with Adele, however, the revolution is decades behind us in history's rearview mirror, and all the societal changes it caused are part of daily life. There is now a middle class in Western Europe; we no longer have a world of "haves" (the aristocracy) and "have-nots" (the servant/peasant class).

We see this change reflected in our two maids! Pre-revolution Susanna is content with her station in life. She's happy to be a servant; all she asks is that the Count stop trying to get her into his bed, and allow her to marry Figaro in peace. Adele, however, chafes at being a chambermaid. "Chafes"? She HATES it! It's just a dreary job to her, one she's always trying to get out of by claiming to have a "sick aunt". No, Adele has her sights set on joining the middle class and having a theatrical career.

This is a wonderful example of how art always functions as a mirror of the society in which and for which it was created. Two maids (gee - one more and we'd have a Gilbert & Sullivan quorum!) - two maids who might share the same voice type, but whose hopes and dreams are shaped by the political realities of their times.

Oh, by the way: the Virginia Opera production in between Fledermaus and Marriage of Figaro also features an unfaithful husband: the brutish Stanley Kowalsky in Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Men! Can't live with 'em, can't sing duets without 'em, am I right, ladies?

Glenn Winters' book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing and will be on sale during intermission of all performances of Die Fledermaus. Or, to order by phone, call 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

No comments:

Post a Comment