Switzerland Kálmán, Die Csárdásfürstin: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Lorenzo Viotti (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich, 25.9.2020. (JR)
Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Set – Franziska Bornkamm
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Video – Tieni Burkhalter
Chorus master – Janko Kastelic
Choreography – Melissa King
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn
Sylva Varescu – Annette Dasch
Edwin – Pavol Breslik
Boni – Spencer Lang
Stasi – Rebeca Olvera
Feri – Martin Zysset
Kiss/Count – Jürgen Appel
Emmerich Kálmán was born in Budapest in 1882. After some less than successful attempts at ‘serious’ compositions during his musical studies (his fellow composition students included Bartók and Kodály), Kálmán turned to the world of operetta. In this operetta Kálmán, brought up on his homeland’s melodies and czardas, introduces Austrian waltzes to create a glorious musical portrait of the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Die Csárdásfürstin (known also under the English titles The Gipsy Princess and The Riviera Princess – this latter version with a new book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse and added numbers by Jerome Kern) became Kálmán’s most popular work, first performed in Vienna in 1915. The composition was ready before war broke out, but was delayed by the outbreak of war. (This production was delayed by the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic; the dress rehearsal was stopped midway through it – the opera house has been fortunate to re-present it so quickly).
Between the World Wars, Kálmán’s operettas were apparently as popular as those of Léhar and Strauss on both sides of the Atlantic. Hitler admired the operetta so much that he offered to make Kálmán, who was Jewish, an honorary Aryan; Kálmán turned him down and emigrated, first to New York, then back to Vienna and finally to Paris.
The operetta’s plot is straightforward. Prince Edwin loves Sylva, a young cabaret singer. Of course, his aristocratic family disapproves and wants him to marry the countess to whom he is betrothed. Sylva is about to embark on an American tour with her manager, Boni. Edwin signs a document promising to marry Sylva in eight weeks, after his military service ends. At the end of those eight weeks Sylva and Boni try to trick him with a sham marriage. Sylva tears up the document and releases him from his promise, but all is happily resolved at the end.
The plot has been updated by producer Jan Philipp Gloger to present times. The scene in Vienna in which Edwin’s parents meet Sylva is virtually entirely dispensed with – it makes the plot difficult to follow unless one has done one’s prior homework. Gloger’s action takes place on a luxury yacht – in times of crisis, the rich escape to their exclusive, comfortable hideaways; a clique of wealthy individuals dance the night away, despite the problems of the time, rather like present-day university students having pre-lockdown parties. Gloger introduces many witty ideas. A wedding takes place on a kitschy Polynesian island. The decadent wealthy throw their empty beer cans into the sea. As the yacht strikes an ice-floe, sweating Eskimos appear, fishing plastic bottles rather than fish out of the sea. The boat starts to sink, visions of the Titanic emerge. The crew drown, dancing, with images of jellyfish and plastic bags in the deep ocean. Stuffed and dancing Polar bears, penguins, walruses, and other animals gather in pairs to search for Noah’s ark. A rubber dinghy with shivering migrants sails past; dead seagulls drop from the sky. The yacht is covered in ocean debris. In the operetta, Edwin has no respect for his parents’ wishes; in this production we are warned to have respect for our environment. The world eventually comes to an end: we see the Earth explode and the remaining singers are hoisted into outer space, to be met by (friendly) aliens. One of the matching lines from the operetta namely is ‘Weisst du, wie lange noch der Globus sich dreht?’ (‘Do you know how much longer the world will spin?’).
Gloger has brought the text up to date. In Noah’s affecting couplet about Noah’s ark (touchingly sung by local tenor Martin Zysset accompanied by a barrel organ), he refers to the virus coming to Earth, some citizens taking precautions, others deriding them.
The set is splendid, a truly life-like small superyacht. However, this gives the singers (and dancers) little room to manoeuvre. Lighting and video effects are impressive. Choreography is hampered by lack of space.
Musically, it is all easy listening but a mite repetitive. There are really only two catchy tunes (admittedly one of them, world famous). The overture augurs a great deal with some tempting Hungarian sounds, but the promise is not kept. Gloger pads the operetta out with his wealth of ideas
Vocally, a problem lies with the electronics. Annette Dasch was quite inaudible at times, especially when singing backstage. She also took a while to warm up. Pavol Breslik had no such problems and looked and sounded more at ease. All singers were miked to aid audibility with their dialogue. The offstage chorus and orchestra (one kilometre away, sound brought in by fibre optic cable) was often too loud, the sound engineer at the rear of the stalls found the ideal balance difficult to achieve. Spencer Lang as a hipster enjoyed his role, often lapsing into his native American; Rebeca Olvera enjoyed her top notes and Spanish swearing.
I missed some pizazz and kept thinking what London’s National Theatre might have done with the work: more dash, more vitality, I suspect. Humour was rather thin on the ground and what little there was, did not hit the mark. A live orchestra and chorus would have helped to bring this production to life but, in these difficult times, we should not really complain.
Those who would like to watch a performance can see it as Video on Demand from 26 September , courtesy of ‘oper für alle – digital’ (click here).