You can, of course, find Vienna on a map lying alongside the Danube, which is, alas, never more than a muddy brown. But it's the other Vienna that grips our imagination where the river is sparkling blue; where princes are students and burgerlich housewives metamorphose into Hungarian countesses. A city that dances to 3/4 time as it flirts its way around the dance floor. A city of masks and imperial uniforms. Here all is always well with the world.
Did the Viennese who clasped Die Fledermaus to their breasts with such joy after its opening night at the Theater an der Wien in the spring of 1874 really see themselves portrayed in Johann Strauss's masterpiece? Or even their neighbours, making such fools of themselves like the Eisensteins?
There's an intriguing argument that operetta was the glue that held the whole rickety structure of the Dual Monarchy together, somehow binding up its ethnically diverse peoples with their different cultures and politics. So Rosalinde pretending to be Hungarian sings a Csárdásin Die Fledermaus. And where does Hannah Glawari the Merry Widow in possession of a fortune of 20 million francs hail from? Pontevedro. A small imagined Balkan country on the far edge of the Empire? If nothing else operetta gives the peoples on the imperial margin a voice in the capital.
But there's an altogether different city lying alongside this operetta Vienna. The Vienna of Freud and Klimt, Kraus and Schiele, a city which has made uncomfortable discoveries about sex. A city that granted its Jewish population full rights as citizens but which was poisonously anti-Semitic. And not everyone buys into the uniforms. Kafka in Prague, but writing in German, and in time the incomparable Joseph Roth will anatomize the insolence of office. Mahler is subverting the symphony and Schoenberg is about to junk the comfort blanket of musical tonality. Vienna, as Michael Frayn, noted may wear a golden mask but rip it off and there is decay. We know now that a new world was being born which will be characterised as Modernism, the consequences of which are still with us.
Look closely and it's there in Die Fledermaus. Not in the score for sure which is irresistibly tuneful, though there can be something a shade sinister about the endless waltz rhythms. No, it's there in the libretto. The idea of sexual deceit – Rosalinde with Alfred the compulsive tenor and Eisenstein off to a party with chorus girls before reporting to gaol. And above all in the disguising at Orlovsky's party. Here is a world in which nothing is what it seems to be. The social order totters when a maid can impersonate a lady and her mistress chooses not expose the deceit when she herself is pretending to be a Hungarian Countess.
So if we laugh at the pretence of it all, there are also reasons why this laughter should sometimes stick in our throats. Christopher Alden's new production knows that. Even if Frosch as a fascist thug is perhaps a goosestep too far for some.