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Lessons from a farce: Houston Grand Opera's Die Fledermaus looks to restore the genre's good name

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Die Fledermaus Houston Grand Opera
Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
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It's been a hard month for the farce.

Not once but twice President Obama launched this term at Republicans as he railed against the 16-day government shutdown, the third longest in American history. "Take a vote, stop this farce, and end this shutdown right now," he cried on Oct. 3 and again on Oct. 13.

So if at the Friday night premiere of Houston Grand Opera's production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, someone yells, "Stop this farce" you'll know what that means. We lavish this phrase on objects of disdain, travesties we hope to banish from the earth.

But what's the harm in a little farce? Die Fledermaus proves, if anything, a little levity and a lot of liquor won't do much harm — if you don't mind a few days in jail.

When it comes to politics one might be inclined to ask what isn't a farce, but when it comes to literature, theater, or film, we encounter a world of extended absurdity that some trace back to Classical theater and bawdy medieval poetry. The form affords a riotous mix of slapstick, stylized performance and plots so intentionally convoluted you're not supposed to care.

Of course farce wasn't always a term to invoke the ire of one's enemies. The form had great success in Strauss's Vienna but also in the roughly contemporary England of Oscar Wilde. Who could forget The Importance of Being Earnest with its muffins and handbags, its scurrilous Jack and Algernon's romping in the countryside to the displeasure of the formidable Lady Bracknell?

You get a hint of its particular flavor in the original trailer to the marvelous 1952 film:

Noel Coward was the great master of the living room farce, which highlights domestic drama and titillates audiences with an mix of wit and meanness including his signature Blithe Spirit, in which a séance unleashes paranormal bigamy to hilarious and disastrous effect. Coward's inimitable play was beautifully realized with Rex Harrison in a 1945 film:

For the Vienna of Johann Strauss, farce was more absurd and convoluted than urbane and witty. Die Fledermaus, or "The Bat" might best be understood as revenge farce. The opera opens with Gabriel von Eisenstein sentenced to eight days in jail for insulting a government official. Perhaps he should cry, "End this farce," but instead he decides to delay his prison stay for just one day to attend a fantastic party at Count Orvlosky's house, a party organized by his enemy Dr Falke.

The unfortunate Falke falls asleep drunk only to wake up in the town square dressed as a bat thanks to Eisenstein's devilish ways.

Lies, pranks, and liquor drive this plot. Eisenstein's maid lies about a sick aunt to attend Orlovsky's party. Eisenstein's wife has taken a lover who goes to jail in her husband's place when he slips off to attend Orlovsky's ball. Eisenstein's wife attends the party pretending to be a Hungarian countess and flirts with her husband to steal his watch as proof of his deceit. After more drinking, everyone ends up in jail but are later reconciled at the end of the opera as if nothing's really happened.

In between? More drinking and dancing. Die Fledermaus is known for polkas, quadrilles, czardas, and above all waltzes as Natalie Dessay proves:

And Tiri Te Kanawa helps prove that a little champagne can fix almost anything:

Houston Grand Opera presents an Opera Australia production set in 1930s Manhattan as directed by Lindy Hume and conducted by Thomas Rösner.  Liam Bonner and Wendy Bryn Harmer star as the troubled Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinde with Laura Claycomb as the naughty maid Adele. Susan Graham returns to Houston Grand Opera to play Prince Orlosky as a trouser role.

You may not understand farce — maybe we're not really supposed to. But you know when you see it. Let's hope this one has us shouting, "Don't stop this farce."

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