"Die Fledermaus," Johann Strauss' seductive salute to the soul-cleansing powers of the spirits of New Year's Eve - both spiritual and alcoholic - will be televised by satellite from London tonight.
Because its action revolves around a New Year's Eve ball in 19th-century Austria, its performance in many opera houses on this occasion is as much an annual rite as all those Christmas Eve "Nutcrackers." It is likely to be an impressive new production the Royal Opera has staged, with a strong cast under Zubin Mehta.
Metromedia, which is broadcasting the performance on its six American stations, including Channel 5 here, believes this "Fledermaus" to be the first opera (or, if you prefer, operetta) to be shown by satellite from Europe. Thus another stride is taken in today's rapid expansion of televised opera.
Even so, it will not quite be "live from Covent Garden," because the time differential would have brought a live "Fledermaus" into Washington homes at 2 this afternoon. Instead, the transmission will be taped and rebroadcast at 8 p.m. (and repeated at 5 p.m. on Sunday).
Those viewers not already familiar with the delights of "Fledermaus" should be alerted that even though Strauss' masterpiece is most emphatically a work of sufficient depth and refinement to carry the label opera, "Fledermaus" is hardly for the opera crowd alone.
Strauss wrote "Fledermaus" as an operetta, and it became to the 19th century what, say, "My Fair Lady" has become to ours. Only several years after the premiere did "Fledermau" make it to the august Vienna State Opera, where it also will have its regular New Year's Eve gala tonight.
The German title shouldn't throw you off. It's just that "Die Fledermanus" means "The Bat," or to be literal. "The Flying Mouse," and people sick with the German because in English it's out of tone for a work of such grace. One might as well translate "Oklahoma" into Chinese. (In the Royal Opera production the lyrics will be sung in German and the dialogue will be in English.)
Anyway, "Fledermaus" is not about bats, but about human battiness.
The first of the three acts is in the living room of the well-to-do Eisenstein household on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. The news comes that the master of the household, Gabriel von Eissentein, has been sentenced to eight days in jail for speaking abusively to a policeman. Since "Fledermaus" is a mid-Victorian work, there is no hint about what he said.The sentence is to begin at midnight.
And since at the Eisenstein house it's traditional that when the cat's away, the mice let loose, a web of plots, subplots and deceits begins.
The maid, Adele, starts it off with an anguished plea to her mistress, Rosalinda Eisenstein, that she must have the night off to visit an ailing aunt. What she really plans is to be one of the unattached girls being assembled for a New Year's Eve ball given by the Russian Prince Orlofsky, who has bought his way into Austrian society in a way true to the Washington scene a century later.
The answer is no until Rosalinda's lover, Alfred, an Italian tenor, shows up for a tryst. Suddenly Adele is welcome to go, no questions asked.
And to complicate it further, Eisenstein's closest friend. Dr. Falke, a notary, shows up to convince Eisenstein to go to the ball ("I can tell you girls will be there") and not show up at jail until the next morning. This a trap in revenge for Eisenstein's practical joke of leaving him out in the country one night after a costume ball in which he was dressed as a bat (thus the title).
The second act takes us to the ball itself, and as the champagne begins to pour, defenses go down, and the ruses gradually are uncovered.
Finally, in the third act, they all end up at the jail, and all is forgiven, as Rosalinda starts a rousing finale blaming it all on the wine.
Very soon into the three hours, the viewer will be able to make a tentative judgment about the most important single element, the orchestra. The "Fledermaus" overture is one of the finest ever written for a comedy. It starts with themes from the third act, and then settles into the famous "Fledermaus" waltz. By then you will know whether Mehta (who takes over the New York Philharmonic next fall) brings sufficient Viennese gemutlichkeit . Since he is Vienna-educated, there is every reason to expect it.
The first figure on stage is Adele, a coloratura, and you can judge her from the first bars, because, in a witty stroke, Strauss begins her aria with the kind of display passage that usually comes at the end. Hildegard Heichele sings the role.
Next is Rosalinda, the meatiest role in the opera, and also the most challenging. (Sung here by the New Zealand soprano Kiri te Kanawa). Her first difficult test comes in her mock farewell to her husband. But you don't know for sure about the performance until her aria at the ball, in which she is masked, impersonating a Hungarian countess. She sings a brilliant "Czardas" to try to prove it; it is one of the opera's vocal high points.
Eisenstein himself has three terrific duets in the first act - one each with his lawyer, his wife and with Falke. The singer tonight is Hermann Prey, the baritone who was a fine Fegaro Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" this fall. He should be every bit as good an Eisenstein.
Intermission features were filmed in New York and are hosted by Tony Randall. Choreography for the Prince's ball is by Sir Frederick Ashton, one of the most distinguished of the breed.
Eight o'clock tonight may be a little early for one to start on the champagne. But by the time the ball rolls around, it should be close to 9:30, and if you're watching "Fledermaus" you might as well join the party.