Coro di Crociati e Pellegrini
“Anch’io dischiuso un giorno”
Coro di Leviti: “Che si vuol?”
Jesús León and Men of the Chorus
“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale”
Ms. Roland, Diana Tash, Mr. León, In Joon Jang
“Oh dischiuso è il firmamento!”
“È l’Assiria una regina”
“Donna, chi sei?”
Ms. Roland and Mr. Jang
Act III Finale
Ms. Roland, Ms. Tash, Mr. León, Mr. Jang, DeReau Farrar and the Chorus
Brian Kim and the Chorus
“Glou! Glou! Glou!”
“Drig! Drig! Drig!”
Mr. Farrar, Mauricio A. Palma II, Tony Arn and Men of the Chorus
“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”
Mr. León and the Chorus
The Violin Aria
Ms. Roland, Ms. Tash and the Chorus
Act II Finale: “Herr Herzog”
Jamie Noel Berrios, Laura Schmidt, Holly Sedillos, Charlie Kim, Martin Olvera, Mr. Palma and the Chorus
Nonnenchor und Lied der Laura
Ms. Roland and Women of the Chorus
“Come along to the ball”
Mr. León and Mr. Jang
“What a joy to be here”
“Chacun à son goût”
“Champagne’s delicious bubbles”
Charlie Kim, Mr. Arn, Ms. Sedillos and the Chorus
“Sing to love”
Ms. Roland, Ms. Tash, Mr. León, Mr. Jang and the Chorus
I Lombardi alla Prima Crocciata (The Lombards at the First Crusade) premiered in Milan at Teatro alla Scala in 1843 and featured the same librettist, Temistocle Solera, as Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco. Based upon an epic poem by a popular Milanese poet, Tommasso Grossi, I Lombardi was an immediate popular success (although not a critical one). As Nabucco had done, I Lombardi appealed to the nationalistic feelings of Italians still enduring the rule of Austria. It particularly pleased its Milan audience with an opening scene showing a familiar church, and a scenario that made it seem the Lombards (and thus the Milanese) singlehandedly won the Crusades. It was the first of Verdi’s operas to be produced in the United States (in New York in 1847) as well as in a rewritten version in Paris in 1847 under the title Jerusalem. It is rarely performed today, due in part to its convoluted and improbable plot as well as its overwhelming scenic demands (including “practicable” hills usable by the performers).
The opera is set in the year 1096, first in Milan, then Antioch, and finally Jerusalem. Arvino, son of the Lombard king, leads his countrymen to the First Crusade following the murder of their father by Arvino’s brother Pagano. It take months for the Crusaders to reach Antioch, where Arvino’s daughter Giselda is captured by the enemy and falls in love with Oronte, son of the Tyrant of Antioch. Following great hardship, the Lombards win their final battle and capture Jerusalem.
Crusaders and pilgrims are found in the Lombard camp near Rachel’s tomb outside Jerusalem. Exhausted by their rough journey and racked by thirst, the Lombards remind God of the trials they have endured in his name (“O Signore, dal tetto natio”). As they recall the beauty of their native land’s fresh breezes, fair brooks, crystalline lakes and vineyards gilded by the sun, they tell God that their longing for their homeland is even harsher than the arid soil of Palestine. An early biographer of Verdi noted that at its initial performance, the chorus aroused a storm of political approval. Indeed, along with “Va, pensiero”, this chorus is still taught in elementary schools in northern Italy as a patriotic anthem.
The Crusading Lombard knights, soldiers and pilgrims mingle in a solemn procession. As they gaze at Jerusalem in the distance, they sing of the promised city (“Gerusalem”), and the blood they have willingly shed to arrive there. Moved to tears by the sight of the Mount of Olives and Calvary where the Nazarene wept for the fatal city and saved mankind, they pray for salvation in the presence of the mountains, the plains and the valleys eternally sacred to human thought.
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s first great success. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero”, a chorus that has remained one of Verdi’s most beloved pieces. Unusually, the choruses were singled out for acclaim in the reviews of Nabucco. An early pupil and assistant of Verdi, Emanuele Muzio, wrote that following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi was known as “il padre del coro” (the father of the chorus). Verdi had a particular facility for vivifying the choruses in his operas. He treated the populace not just as props but frequently made them a central character – the people oppressed by the power, wealth and tyranny of the leading characters.
Verdi’s early career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and taken off after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties, had one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life, saw both of his children die in infancy, and lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever – hardly the ideal circumstances for creating a comic opera. However, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph.
Verdi told the newspaper critic Stafford of the Daily Graphic in January, 1893, years after Nabucco’s premiere, of the difficult circumstances of its La Scala premiere: “The artistes were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations to the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the Va, pensiero, but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and they were sitting about on ladders and scaffolding listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” That future included 75 performances at La Scala alone in the opera’s first year, followed by success throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, including a performance conducted in Vienna by Donizetti.
Nabucco had another significant role to play in Verdi’s life. The La Scala star for whom he specifically wrote the role of Abigaille– perhaps the most exciting (and exacting) role in the opera — was Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was an enthusiastic supporter of Nabucco, urging the management to give it a good position in the season. She was soon to become a friend and advisor, then Verdi’s mistress, and finally his wife of 38 years.
Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor is based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon (referred to in the libretto as “Assyria”) under Nabucco (Nebuchednezzar). The Assyrian army is about to capture Jerusalem, where Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Hebrews, who threaten to kill her if their city is taken. Fenena has followed Ismaele, the nephew of the Jewish king, after rescuing him from imprisonment in Assyria. Ismaele is also loved by Abigaille, Fenena’s sister, who threatens revenge on both of them for Ismaele’s rejection of her. The temple is overrun by Abigaille and Nabucco’s troops and Ismaele rescues Fenena from being slain by the Hebrews. Believing Ismaele to have betrayed them, the Hebrews are taken in captivity to Babylon.
Abigaille has stolen a document from Nabucco which proves that she is not his daughter, but the child of slaves whom he has adopted (“Ben io t’invenni, o fatal scritto!). Enraged by her belief that Nabucco intends to shame her, and his appointment of Fenena as regent while he is off at war, Abigaille vows that everyone will see her fury fall on Nabucco and Fenena. But her mind turns to her love for Ismaele, and she remembers the day when she once opened her heart to joy (“Anchi’io dischiuso un giorno”). Everything around her spoke of holy love. She wept at others’ tears and suffered others’ pain, and wonders who will return her to that lost enchantment.
The Levites have been summoned to Fenena’s chambers by the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria, and ask what is wanted of them (“Che si vuol?”). They wonder who has summoned them so late at night, and are horrified to be met by Ismaele. Unaware that Fenena has converted to their faith, they call Ismaele accursed of the Lord. Ismaele implores their mercy, but they tell him that the accursed has no brothers, nor anyone on earth who will speak with him. Ismaele begs them to cease their curses. Fear of being branded by God is driving him mad, and death would be preferable.
Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal have falsely proclaimed that Nabucco is dead, and arrive to claim the throne from Fenena in reprisal for her freeing of the Jews. As Abigaille reaches for the crown, Nabucco enters with his troops and seizes the crown from both of them. As he rises over all, Nabucco warns them that the moment of his fatal anger is drawing near (“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale”). Seeing the terror falling on their silent faces as the thunderbolts are about to strike, he warns them that a day of mourning and wretchedness approaches for them. The members of his court and the Hebrews echo his dire warning. Fenena tells her father she has embraced the Hebrew god and the outraged Nabucco orders her to prostrate herself before him, saying that he is no longer king, he is god. At that moment, a thunderbolt strikes the crown from his head and leaves Nabucco insane. Abigaille seizes the crown in the name of Baal and then tricks her maddened father into signing the Jews’ death warrant, which unknown to him will also condemn Fenena.
As Fenena is brought to Baal’s sacrificial altar with the other Jews about to be killed, she kneels for the blessing of Zaccaria, the Hebrew High Priest, who commends her to her home in heaven. Fenena cries that the firmament has opened up (“Oh, dischiuso è il firmamento”) and she sees that God smiles on her and reveals eternal joy. Saying farewell to the splendor of the stars, she says that God will flood her with light as her soul flies to heaven.
Following Nabucco’s descent into madness, the Assyrians proclaim Abigaille ruler. They hail their Assyrian queen (“É l’Assiria una regina”), saying that she is as powerful as Baal and brings destruction everywhere to foreigners who challenge her in war. Now that her valor has brought peace, she will pass her days among her contented subjects, laughing in joy and love.
Wandering disheveled through the court, Nabucco appears before Abigaille. Distractedly wondering who has had the daring to take his place on the throne and not recognizing Abigaille, he demands to know who she is (“Donna, chi sei?”). Abigaille says she has taken the throne as custodian during his illness at the will of the people. When Nabucco remonstrates with her, she says that the Assyrians cry out against the Hebrews, and demands that he sign the decree condemning them to death. Nabucco is troubled at the thought, and Abigaille mocks him, saying that the Hebrews will live thanks to Nabucco’s cowardly fear. The enraged Nabucco signs the orders of execution, which Abigaille sends to the executioner before Nabucco realizes she has tricked him into condemning his daughter as well. As Nabucco begs her to have mercy on him and Fenena, Abigaille exults in her triumph and tells Nabucco that he has lost everything, and she has won.
In later years, Verdi claimed that the producer Merelli forced Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco on him in spite of Verdi having determined to give up his career. As Verdi threw the manuscript onto a table, the libretto fell open at the page with the opening lines of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”). Unable to resist reading the rest of the libretto immediately, he then reread it several times that evening. Whether Verdi’s mythologizing in later life is true or not, the premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of Va, pensiero (in spite of the Austrians’ having banned encores in the theaters, fearing any spontaneous political demonstrations). The chorus has remained one of the most loved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus – described by the composer Rossini as a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses – resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves yearn for the sweet air in their fatherland so beautiful and lost. Remembering the time that was, they pray to the Lord for the strength to endure.
Following the successes of three of his first four operas for La Scala, Verdi hoped to reach a wider audience and accepted a commission from Teatro La Fenice in Venice. He chose as his vehicle the French play Ernani by Victor Hugo (which became a major stalwart of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire). Hugo based much of his hit play on the true story of a Robin Hood-type figure in Spain during the reign of Don Carlos I (later crowned Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the grandfather of the title character in Verdi’s later opera Don Carlos). Verdi chose for his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who, for the next two decades, was to become one of his most frequent collaborators. Ernani scored a great success in Venice, as well as establishing Verdi’s career outside of Italy. The composer suffered his usual travails with finding the right singers, as well as difficulties with the police and the Austrian censors over scenes of conspiracy against a ruler. Verdi craftily gave in on a few minor details while retaining the overall incendiary feel of Hugo’s play, which the authorities were apparently too obtuse to notice. Although none of Verdi’s early operas was “contemporary” nor overtly connected with the politics of the day, they all featured themes of liberty and patriotism, as well as opposition to tyranny. Given Italy’s roiling politics during the Risorgimento of the 1820’s through the 1870’s, it is easy to see how Verdi became such a potent figure on the larger Italian stage outside of the opera house. Indeed, his very name became a rallying cry with a double meaning – “Viva Verdi!” – as the letters of his last name also stood for “Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy, later to be the first king of the united Italy). With Ernani, Verdi moved toward a drama of individuals, with the chorus acting more as support than as a central character, as in Nabucco and I Lombardi.
Ernani is the alias of a Spanish nobleman, Juan de Aragón, whose family has been banished. Ernani has joined a band of rebels and outlaws fighting against Don Carlos (Don Carlo), King of Castile. Ernani is in love with Elvira, a young noblewoman whom he hopes to free from her elderly uncle, Silva, who intends to marry Elvira against her wishes. Unbeknownst to any of them, Don Carlo is also enamored of Elvira and takes her hostage. Ernani and Silva join forces to rescue Elvira and murder Don Carlo.
The conspirators are gathered in the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, near the tomb of Charlemagne. Having been informed of the plot against him, Don Carlo has hidden in the tomb to spy on his enemies. Booming cannon announce the choice of Don Carlo as Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. As Ernani and his cohort ask what the noise can be (“Qual rumore! Che sarà!!”), they are thunderstruck to see Carlo come out of the tomb, believing him to be the ghost of Charlemagne. Carlo quickly sets them right as the Electors, Elvira, and Spanish and German nobles enter to proclaim him Emperor. Carlo denounces the conspirators as traitors, sentencing the commoners to prison and the nobles to death. Ernani insists on death as he reveals his true identity, and Elvira begs Carlo to honor the greatness of his throne with forgiveness. Her plea for pity moves Carlo as he glances at the tomb of his predecessor (“O sommo Carlo”) and he not only pardons the conspirators, but grants Ernani and Elvira the right to wed. Carlo praises Charlemagne, while Elvira, Ernani and the court praise Carlo’s glory and honor, telling him he resembles God in his forgiveness. Meanwhile Silva bemoans his offended honor, and vows revenge on Carlo, Ernani and Elvira, as Carlo vows to emulate Charlemagne’s greatness.
Hector Berlioz moved to Paris as a young medical student, but soon abandoned his medical studies to devote himself to music and composition. His prolific output includes his first great success, Symphonie fantastique in 1830, as well as a Requiem, the operas Benvenuto Cellini and Les troyens, and choral and dramatic works including Roméo et Juliette and La damnation de Faust. Known as much during his lifetime for his conducting and music criticism as for his composing, Berlioz struggled for acceptance of his revolutionary music, whose innovative brilliance is now recognized worldwide. Berlioz had a lifelong fascination with Goethe’s Faust, writing several symphonic pieces inspired by it before a trip to Germany culminated in the first version of La damnation de Faust in 1846. La damnation de Faust has become more widely performed as an opera since an adaptation for the stage in 1893 in Monaco, but it was originally written as a concert piece. Berlioz himself described it as “an opera without décor or costumes”.
In the first act, the aged Faust is enjoying a spring day on the plains of Hungary. His pleasure is interrupted by the sound of villagers, who have gathered to dance (Peasants’ Round-Dance) and sing of the shepherds leaving their flocks, dressed in ribbons and wild flowers, dancing and leaping like madmen under the lime trees. Faust grudges them their pleasure while he feels old and wretched. The village dance becomes more heated, flying by like lightning, as one by one the ring of dancers fall down in a row. The men mock the women’s false modesty as they snatch them from the circle . . . and everything takes its course.
Jacques Offenbach was famed in his lifetime for his light operas, bringing the form of what we now call operetta to the peak of its popularity and style. Founding his own theater in 1855, he combined social and political satire while sometimes parodying grand opera. Described by Rossini as the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées”, Offenbach wrote almost 100 light operas, of which Orpheus in the Underworld, La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and La Périchole remain popular 150 years later. (He was so driven to compose that even his carriage was equipped with a writing desk, inkwell and candles.) Following financial disaster at his theater after the Franco-Prussian War and the Second Empire’s collapse, he went on tour in the U.S. to recoup his losses.
On his return to Europe, he dedicated himself to the composition of his most enduring masterpiece. He did not live, however, to see the success of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a “serious opera” on which he had justly placed so much hope for posterity. Having famously said that he would die with a melody at the end of his pen, Offenbach had in fact just completed Hoffmann’s piano score and was at work on the orchestration when he died, only four months before the Paris premiere in October, 1880. The orchestration and final version were prepared by Ernest Guiraud, a composer whose own works are now forgotten but who is also notable for writing the recitatives for Bizet’s Carmen, which are now used in most productions in place of the original spoken dialog. The premiere was everything Offenbach could have hoped. Achieving over 100 performances in Paris alone in its first year, it was followed by a worldwide recognition which has never faded.
Using a libretto by Jules and Pierre Barbier, Hoffmann is based on the “memoirs” of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer, composer and painter best known for his mysterious stories featuring supernatural characters and devices, including the tale that became The Nutcracker. Mixing fantasy and realism, the three acts tell of three of Hoffman’s love affairs, which he recounts to a group of students in a Nuremberg tavern.
In the Prologue, the curtain rises on an empty tavern, inhabited only by the Spirits of Beer and Wine, who celebrate themselves (“Glou Glou Glou!”) as the friends of mankind, who chase away languor and worry.
A group of students enters the tavern (”Drig! Drig! Drig!”), calling on its owner Luther to give them beer and wine, and to keep filling their glasses until morning. Saying that Luther is a good man with a good cellar, and his wife a true daughter of Eve, nonetheless tomorrow they will thrash him, ransack his cellar and abduct his wife. Luther ignores these sallies as he tries to provide drink for all of them. The poet Hoffmann enters with his ubiquitous friend Niklausse (a trousers role for mezzo-soprano) and the students demand that Hoffmann amuse them with a song. Hoffmann obliges them with the legend of Kleinzach, a dwarf in the court of Eisenach (“Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”). The woeful Kleinzach had legs that went “clic clac”, with a hump for a stomach, a nose black with tobacco, and a head that went “crick crack”. As Hoffmann starts to describe Kleinzach’s face, he instead becomes lost in a reverie and begins to recall a charming face, remembering that he followed its beautiful owner as he left his father’s house like a madman to pursue her across the country. He rhapsodizes about her dark hair, her beautiful blue eyes, and the sweet and vibrant voice which still resonates in his heart. Lost in his memories, he is startled out of them by the demand that he finish the story of Kleinzach.
The first of Hoffmann’s fantastic tales of lost loves we see brought to life onstage is that of Olympia, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be only a mechanical doll. Hoffmann has come to visit Olympia’s father, ostensibly to study physics but really to see his beloved. As Hoffmann waits in the study, Niklausse attempts to warn him of his suspicion that Olympia is not real. In the rarely performed Violin Aria, Niklausse makes a play on words of the French word âme (which can mean “soul” or “sounding board of a violin”). Niklausse tells his lovestruck friend that he knows that Olympia has a soul – but what bothers Niklausse is that violins also have a soul. He describes the sounding board (or soul) vibrating, the heavenly music of a disembodied soul, which fills the air and mingles its suffering with Hoffmann’s intense sorrow. It is love, vanquishing love, to which the poet must give his heart.
The second of Hoffmann’s tales is set in Venice at the palace of the courtesan Giulietta, overlooking the Grand Canal. Giulietta and Niklausse join in the famous Barcarolle, singing of the lovely night, the night of love (“Belle nuit”). They ask the night to smile upon them and bestow its kisses, as time flies beyond recall.
Johann Strauss II (also known as “the Younger”) would never have had a career in music if he had followed his father’s wishes. Although Johann the Elder had an extremely successful career as a composer and bandleader, he forbade all three of his sons to become musicians. Fortunately for Vienna (and for us), Johann II’s mother secretly arranged lessons for her talented son, who went on to even greater fame than the father. Following in his father’s path composing waltzes, which the Strausses helped transform from a disdained peasant dance to music adopted by high society, Johann II soon became known as the “Waltz King”. He remains famous for such evergreens as The Blue Danube and Tales of the Vienna Woods.
Strauss’ friend Jacques Offenbach (who was so popular in Vienna that he was said to have called the city his bankroll) was the first to urge young Johann to compose for the theater. Almost a decade later in 1871, now internationally famous for his waltzes, marches, polkas and quadrilles, Johann II obliged with two moderately successful operettas before finally striking gold. Die Fledermaus opened in 1874 and was soon not only the toast of Austria and Germany (with over 150 different theaters in Germany performing it within six months of its premiere), but internationally. The operetta reached its apogee in 1894 when Gustav Mahler included it, under his baton, in the schedule of the Hamburg Opera – an overwhelming achievement for an operetta. Strauss himself conducted Fledermaus five years later at the Vienna Opera, and shortly thereafter fell ill with pneumonia. He died a few days later, still the Waltz King of Vienna after fifty years. He was so integral a part of Viennese life that it was later said that the Empire ended with his death in 1899 (although the actual Emperor, Franz Joseph, lived until 1918). Jacques Offenbach, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi all admired Strauss’ music, and Die Fledermaus remains a favorite of opera houses and theaters worldwide.
Der lustige Krieg (The Merry War) is set in 18th century Italy, and the “war” is between Genoa and Massa-Carrara, who are at odds because a ballet dancer has been engaged to perform simultaneously by the leaders of the two principalities, neither of whom is willing to capitulate. The war has proceeded completely without bloodshed, with the army of Massa-Carrara composed entirely of women led by Princess Artemisia. Her niece Violetta has arranged a marriage with the Duke of Limburg in order to have access to both his money and his army to join the “war”. In the midst of both sides sneaking into each other’s camps (and, of course, falling in love with each other) is ensnared the hapless Dutch tulip farmer Balthasar, who wants only to recover his wife Else and his tulips, both of which have become spoils of war. Amidst the romantic entanglements of the “enemies”, Balthasar is forced to pose as the Duke of Limburg while the lovers scheme and court. As the various couples pair off, the “merry war” comes to an end. As may be guessed from the plot, Strauss was generally none too particular about the books for his operettas. Nonetheless, Der lustige Krieg was another in a long line of successes. After having played in 27 German cities in its first year, it swept through Europe and arrived in New York within six months of its Vienna premiere, also scoring a great success in the U.S.
In the finale of the second act, the formidable Princess Artemisia attempts to lead Balthasar (believing him to be the Duke of Limburg under the pseudonym “Herr Herzog”) to his marriage night with Violetta. Balthasar’s wife Else is unhappy because she believes Balthasar to be unfaithful, and Balthasar himself is totally uncomprehending, thinking that the Limburg Artemisia keeps mentioning is a cheese (which he would be very happy to eat). Meanwhile the young soldier Umberto hopes his detainment will continue so he can prevent “Limburg’s” marriage to Violetta, who also fears that peace will separate her from Umberto and has no wish whatsoever to marry anyone else. In the midst of this farrago, all agree that whether in dancing or in politics, they are all spinning in circles. Pondering this, they realize that if everyone would just dance with hearts full of desire, there would be no friends or enemies – everyone would be united!
Using Strauss’ music for the score, the operetta Casanova was written after Strauss’ death by Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch. Premiering in 1928, the plot finds the famous lover Casanova in Venice, wreaking havoc among the nobility and servant classes alike. About the only woman he does not woo in the opera is Laura, the beloved of Casanova’s friend von Hohenfels. Laura has been dispatched to life in a convent, since she has refused her father’s command to marry a man she hates. Casanova follows Laura to Spain and concocts an elaborate plot to rescue her from the convent. Before he manages this, however, we see Laura among the nuns. In the Nonnenchor und Lied der Laura (Nun’s Chorus and Song of Laura), the abbess leads the nuns in prayer. However, while the other nuns ask the Madonna to accept Laura’s entry into the nunnery, Laura is imploring her help to escape the cloister and the veil.
Die Fledermaus was based on the popular French farce Le réveillon by Offenbach’s frequent librettists Mailhac and Halévy. Although thought unsuited to German and Austrian audiences (in spite of having been adapted by Mailhac and Halévy from a German play), the canny Viennese producer Max Steiner gave it to successful Viennese librettist Richard Genée, who soon found the key to making it “Viennese” and drastically restructured the original. Strauss was delighted with the libretto and was said to have composed non-stop for forty-two nights (supposedly even neglecting to eat and drink) to complete Die Fledermaus.
The title (which means The Bat) refers to a prank once played by the wealthy rake Eisenstein on his friend Falke. Having gone to a costume ball (Eisenstein dressed as a butterfly and Falke as a bat) where they both drank too much, Eisenstein abandoned his friend under a tree. Falke woke (still dressed as a bat) to the jeers of street urchins and the laughter of the town as he walked home. Falke has planned his revenge, and his complicated scheme unfolds during the evening in which Fledermaus takes place.
On the eve of Eisenstein’s going to prison for eight days for insulting a tax collector, Falke has come to bid his friend farewell. Falke tells Eisenstein they should enjoy one last night on the town at a masquerade ball at Prince Orlofsky’s palace. Eisenstein can wait until morning to go to prison, and Falke urges him to “Come along to the ball.” Unable to resist a night of dancing with willing young women, Eisenstein agrees to pose as the Marquis Renard, thereby falling into “the bat’s” trap.
As Act II opens on the ballroom of Prince Orlofsky’s palace, the ball is in full swing. Servants serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres as the elegantly dressed guests happily exclaim, “What a joy to be here!”
Given Austria’s frosty relationship with Russia in 1874, the satiric portrait of the Russian Prince Orlofsky was a likely source of amusement in Vienna during a bitter economic crisis. Traditionally a trousers role for mezzo-soprano, Prince Orlofsky greets Falke with the lament that “Never in my life have I been so bored. Everything bores me. I cannot laugh. My billions are my misfortune.” As the waiters bring more champagne, the Prince acquaints his guests with the rules of the palace: “Each to his own taste” (“Chacun à son goût”).
Prince Orlofsky proposes a toast to the glamorous Hungarian countess who refuses to unmask (in reality, Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinda, whom Falke has lured to the ball to witness her husband’s infidelity). As the guests raise their glasses, Orlofsky, Eisenstein and Rosalinda’s maid Adele (also in disguise, in her mistress’ gown) join with the throng to celebrate “Champagne’s delicious bubbles”.
Seeing that all are carried away by the champagne and the air of romance at the ball, Falke proposes a toast to love and brotherhood, and Orlofsky and his guests gladly “Sing to love”.