This is operetta at
its finest: witty, intelligent and produced
with breathtaking panache.
Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán,
a fellow student of Bartók and
Kodály integrated the great Viennese
operetta tradition with Hungarian music
and added a thoroughly modern satirical
edge. Die Herzogin von Chicago also
draws on the political cabaret that
was a feature of radical Vienna, Berlin
and Munich at the time. Moreover, it
directly addresses the impact of America,
of jazz and social revolution.
This production, a
runaway success in Vienna, is wonderful
because it doesnít merely revive the
original but updates it in the true
spirit in which it was written Ė as
a riotous commentary on current affairs.
The original lasted no less than five
hours, but with judicious editing it
has become very swift-paced and concise.
The editors, Dominik Wilgenbus and Stefan
Frey were even able to add a scene in
which the two court officials talk about
political "expediency", an
entirely appropriate skit which would
have been banned in Kálmánís
Miss Mary Lloyd, makes
a bet with her fawning circle of girlfriends,
the "Eccentric Young Ladies Club",
that she can buy anything in the world,
because she is so fabulously wealthy.
Cue for an extravaganza of gorgeous
1920s flapper costumes, jazz and the
Many of the dancers
are professionals from the Volksoper
ballet and their professionalism shows.
Throughout the operetta, the dance scenes,
which had to be re-choreographed, are
spectacular. Miss Lloyd is played by
Norine Burgess, a "real",
healthy-looking American girl, full
of what they used to call in those days,
"vim and vigour". She is a
masterly actress and dancer as well
as an excellent singer, and her German
is close to faultless. Indeed, she is
so perfect in the role that it is almost
impossible too imagine a production
without her: she is charismatic, and
brings depth and sensitivity to what
could be an unsympathetic role. Her
enthusiasm seems to light up the stage.
There are hilarious
parodies which you have to be quick
to catch. Beethovenís Fifth is played
as a foxtrot, and danced to by two bald
women. Thereís a takeoff of Ernst Krenekís
contemporary operetta Johnny Spielt
Auf which had been the sensation
of Vienna in 1926 Ė Kálmán
steals Krenekís central image of a black
man with a golden saxophone! Krenekís
operetta, incidentally, was also revived
in Vienna in 2003, so there are in-jokes
Cut to Sylvania, a
tiny kingdom somewhere vaguely Hungarian.
"Cut" is the right word because
one of the sub-texts of this operetta
is the influence of Hollywood and the
movies. Miss Maryís friend and advisor
is Bondy, a film director, who sees
life as an unfolding movie. Reality
and film blur in his mind, and his comments
set a mise-en-scène where real
life blends with fantasy. If the plot
seems familiar it is after all, the
stuff of many movies Ė The Student
Prince, The Prince and the Showgirl
... Anyway, back to Sylvania,
and Prince Sándor Boris and his
Ministers are trying to keep the cheering
natives happy while the King is off
to Paris. Then, as now, thereís nothing
like a Royal Wedding to please the locals.
They even have "Prince" dolls!
So the Prince, played by the dashing
Mehrzad Montazeri, makes a pact with
his promised bride, Princess Rosemarie
von Morienen, Renée Schüttengruber.
Love itís not, but illusion.
Miss Mary arrives in
Sylvania where she meets what she thinks
is the Prince while the real prince
is pretending to be an aide-de-camp.
She, of course, being smart, prefers
the aide. Now thereís a chance for the
Sylvanians to do their thing, a parody
of a Viennese waltz to the tune of a
gypsy violin, singing about Schubert
and Strauss, who "shall return
one day". The whole nightclub joins
in and the stage revolves around in
a whirl, like a waltz.
Despite the whimsy,
there is serious thought behind this
plot. America was showing the Old World
a completely different way of living,
much more shocking to Europeans then
than we realize, after eighty years
of familiarity through TV, mass media
and cheap travel. That was still the
age when European peasants emigrated,
never to return. This operetta makes
a strong point that, for all their exoticism,
Americans are at heart, dislocated Europeans.
Bondy reveals that his grandfather was
a Jewish nobody from some tiny hamlet
in the middle of nowhere. How shocked
the old man would be to see his grandson
hobnobbing with Sylvanian families!
Bondy arranges the sale of the Royal
Palace with the Finance Minister and
the Minister of State. These two, played
with hilarious mock formality and sleaze
by Josef Luftensteiner and Sándor
Németh, have the most savagely
satirical things to say about "government".
The Prince is talked into selling his
palace for the benefit of the people.
And so Miss Mary moves in and redecorates
the "crumbling ruin" in the
latest style but keeping the throne
because itís comfortable.
To cut a long story
short, because weíve all seen this kind
of plot before, Bondy and the Princeís
promised bride fall in love and, despite
themselves, Miss Mary and the "aide"
do so too, warily. This is depicted
in a brilliant cartoon sequence which
must come over even better on film than
on stage. The Prince and Mary dissolve
into a cartoon cowboy and an Indian
Princess, called Morgenrot, and cruise
along in a canoe in the moonlight Ė
modern eyes might see references to
Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, especially
as Bondy is schmoozing Princess Rosemarie!
Itís also a great excuse for more wonderful
"Indian" dancing that gets
progressively more bizarre, because
as we know real Native American culture
was already being parodied in Hollywood.
It makes a surprisingly powerful point
about cultural imperialism and what
might face Europe if Europeans didnít
hold their own. As one of the directors
said, "itís still relevant".
Then the King comes
back, with two Parisian floozies and
tries to put the make on Miss Mary who
isnít falling for that Kuss die Hande
nonsense. It is hard to describe
just how rich and rewarding the jokes
are from now on, parodying French operetta
and German, wordplays and wit, with
references to Hungarian and Viennese
culture, modernity, current events (like
monkey glands and Viagra) and so on.
The subtitles are hopeless but much
of this is beyond translation. Nonetheless,
if your German isnít fluent, you can
still catch the humorous vivacity. Suffice
to say that thereís a happy ending when
everyone ends up singing Czárdás,
Waltzes and Charlestons and lives happily
ever after, we hope ...
This is a fabulously
beautiful production, a feast for the
eyes and senses. But it stands out because
it brims with enthusiasm, wit and joie
de vivre. Itís not "opera archaeology"
by any means, but operetta for our times.
see alsoe review
by Ian Lace