I have been shuddering under the memory of the appalling, amateurish Blume von Hawaii at the dreaded Halle Theater for a couple of years now. So I haven’t been to many Operette performances in Germany since. But the grand Toi c’est moi in Altenburg cheered me largely. And tonight’s premiere of Pál Ábrahám’s Ball im Savoy at the Komische Oper cheered me all over again.
Ball im Savoy is the third of Ábrahám’s trio of successful (in Germany) Operettes of the early 1930s. It’s also the least colourful and the most conventional as regards libretto, and the least original musically. Which is probably why tonight’s version fiddled with the book and introduced better-known music from his better shows. But, minor Ábrahám is better than major almost anyone else of the period … so, hey, thanks!
I didn’t know what to expect tonight. You see so many distorted, old-fashioned regietheater productions of all kinds of shows in German theatres. Or did. But I knew, from the moment the orchestra (md: Adam Benzwi) started, that I was going to enjoy myself. The overture was accompanied by a front-cloth screening of the most adorable, imaginative silhouettes … I’ve never seen anything so clever. If it was original, it was staggering. What a good start!
The show proper began less well. Music awry, leading man voiceless … but it soon came right, once the chorus came on. My goodness, that chorus! They sang and danced at full blast and full rate all evening! It was actually 40 minutes into Act one before we got a slow, soft, solo-stage number without a huge dance-break … and, as good as the young dancers were, what a relief it was. It really had been rather frenetic and relentless.
And it would be again, as the stage filled with whirling dancers, joyous comical interaction (director: Barrie Kosky), marvellously silly costumes, first-class supporting players, an hilarious elevator ('Who's coming?') … oh yes! crazy, colourful, inconsequential, and fairly campy Operette! Yes!
By and large, design, direction and choreography were all gold star winners. Except when they mixed up vulgarity with fun. The poor lady who had to do a simulated orgasm (for no reason) on stage diminished her performance, and whoever made her do it, did ditto to the show. The same goes for the childish cock and twat business from the otherwise excellent choreographer (Otto Pichler). Grow up, little boys. When the rest of your work is so supremely good, why do that stuff? Yawn.
Which brings us to the principal players.
Here, honestly, I was a little disappointed.
This show has two leading ladies – which is supreme, depends on which version you do. We had more Gitta Alpár and less Marika Rökk, and almost no – alas - Rózsi Bársony. Originally, the pairing was singing prima donna and dancing soubrette. Not any more. Anyway, both players, tonight, were good, but imperfect.
Dagmar Manzel is a deliciously funny comedy actress – her Greta Garbo (or was it Zarah Leander) imitation was a hoot – and when she sings in the lower register she produces some splendid sounds. Alas, the soprano top is worn and unreliable. But she sang her two quiet solos – the blessed relief ones – delightfully, and didn’t go too far over the top in her Hello, Dolly bits of acting. So, all in all, a firm ‘yes’. How many actresses can do all that?
Katharine Mehrling, in the Bársony role, did go over the top. This young lady seems equipped to be a first-class Operette player. When she got a rare chance to sing properly, she was stunning. She has style too. Great style. But apparently doesn’t do the Bársony dancing. Instead, we had grotesque low comedy. Fair enough. We had enough dance elsewhere. The audience adored her. I liked her. But … she can do much better than this. When toned down a tad.
The third lady of the piece is Tangolita, the sultry Rita Hayworth seductress. This role was inspiredly cast with plunging contralto Agnes Zwierko, who played the temptress as the Italian lady from Nine, in a wholly and utterly successful way. Great idea, great performance, gorgeous singing, a treat!
So, the ladies, all scored a 'fine' or even better. I cannot say the same for the leading men. So I will pass by in silence. Singing in time and tune is a necessity for even the most striving of very-light-barihunks. And if you are going to play a charming, light-comedy, dance role, it helps if you have an ounce of charm, a touch of real as opposed to pasted-on comedy and some dance ability.
But there were compensations elsewhere! Grand ones. One of the big hits of the night was a rearrangement of the show’s best-known song ‘Toujours l’amour’, sung so wonderfully sweetly by Peter Renz and Christiane Oertel as to have me jumping from my seat. The other, was a cleverly arranged and splendidly sung rendition of Ábrahám’s Goodnight song (one of the borrowed bits from Viktoria und ihr Hussar), sung as a curtain piece by the whole company.
There were so many great moments tonight. In a 3 ¼ hour show (too long! cut some dialogue, some dance-breaks and the cursed second verses) you can’t like everything. And if I’m sounding grumpy here, it’s just that ... well, I wanted it to be perfect … and, heck, what in this world is perfect?
It was a grand evening. And it reaffirmed my growing belief that Germany can still produce first class Operette in a joyous and adult style …
Bravo! Komische Oper! You are leading us (back) to the future.