Germany goes in for open-air theatres in a big way. I’ve tried a few: from the large one at Mörbisch in Austria (Das Land des Lächelns) where you needed a telescope and a litre of insect-repellent, to the fun one (audience rain-protected!) at little Bökendorf, last year (Bonnie and Clyde). Tonight it was a Berlin one, the ‘celebrated’ Waldbühne, out Spandau way, and the show, Die Csardasfûrstin – which I hadn’t seen since Sadler’s Wells and Marilyn Hill Smith, thirty plus years ago.
The Waldbühne is a wonderful but impractical venue. Built like a vast amphitheatre, with hundreds and hundreds of steps to scale, it houses anything from a Barbra Streisand concert to the Berlin Philharmonic … and tonight it was Operette.
Does it work for Operette? Well, it wasn’t perfect. The orchestra was in a tent, out stage right, with its conductor. Time delays resulted in a fair bit of untidy music. Then, if you are going to play on a vast stage, you need a king-sized Drury Lane cast. This type of stage eats choruses. And, of course, everything has to be sometimes unpleasantly amplified. But in the day of the mp3, that’s what everyone expects. And you know those things before you come.
But, on to tonight’s production. Straight away, let me say that I liked this open-air Operette way better than I had thought I was going to. Indeed, I liked it quite a lot. But I will also say that I would truthfully have liked the production better had it been ‘inside’. Where I assume it comes from. Quite a lot of the scenes are if not ‘intimate’ ... well, Act I takes place in a cabaret bar … act 3 in a hotel lobby … the ‘feel’ in an amphitheatre is a bit odd.
I should also say that we didn’t see the ur-Csardasfürstin. We saw a long version. Because the extraneous material that was tacked into the show in the 1940s to make a big role for Hungary’s ageing megastar, Hanna Honthy, was retained, as was a spare interpolated aria for the hero, Edwin. Who has quite enough to sing anyway. So, nothing memorable was, I think, missing, we just had a couple of ‘turns’ in the middle of the action. Making Act 2 full of plums and Act 3 rather an anti-climax.
The physical production was fine. Traditional with a capital T. It could have gone on like this in 1915, 1950 or now. Just like everything that I have seen at Budapest’s Fövárosi Operettszinház. Compared to the other Operette productions which I have seen this year – Toi c’est moi and Ball im Savoy – it gave up visual extravagance, ‘originality’ and camp for delicious Hungarian authenticity: it certainly didn’t give up on fun (the audience laughed a lot), and it most certainly didn’t give up on Operette’s heart and soul: glorious music, and splendid singing. Some splendid singing. Which rejoiced my heart.
Logically, most of the cast comes from Hungary. All I can say is (and I’ve said it before) Operette casting directors: get yourselves to Hungary! All except two players, one prima donna and one clever comic, who were replaced with German ‘names’. For commercial reasons, and with only a degree of success.
The Hungarian cast scored 100 percent of success. And yet – no programme, only the two ‘stars’ billed anywhere on the net -- I don’t even know the performers’ names!
So often, the parts of the two jolly roués, Boni and Feri – who hold the show and the plot together -- are cast with makeweight comics-who-sing a bit. Tonight they were splendid comedians, real singers and deftly ditsy dancers: you couldn’t have cast the two parts better if you had tried. To hear ‘Die Mädis vom chantant’ thoroughly sung, and see it thoroughly danced, with a real fleetness of foot… And ‘Mädel Guck!’ was – as it can be, when well done -- the hit of the show.
In that bit of sweet song-and-dance Boni was paired with my favourite performer of the night. When the young lady in the crazy blue dress appeared upstage, I said ‘oh! please, let that be Stasi’. And it was. What a soubrette! A charming actress, full of life and fun, a lovely singer, a delightful dancer ... and she did the Marika Oszwald cartwheel! In fact, she could have just about been Miss Oszwald (one of my all-time favourites) reincarnate ..
The slightly older lady, who played Hanna Honthy, looked great and did her starry stuff with dash and a lot of chorus boys, the actor who doubled the ubiquitous Mischa/Alphonse (Ralph Morgenstern, billed) scored his comic points with flair … and the choruses sang and danced energetically. Maybe some of their dances were a wee bit too conventional to be true (like their costumes) but they gave the material as she was writ and as she has been played for nearly a century.
Which brings us to the two 'leads'.
The uxorious Edwin is a fairly soppy part. He only really gets to let his hair down and have some fun in the famous ‘Schwalben-Duett’, and he did so with delightful abandon. But if there’s nothing much to act in the role, there’s plenty to sing and the beefy (ie lose 5k) tenor vocalised lustily through the slightly high-for-him score, only coming to grief in the very upper reaches of his unnecessary aria. It should be cut. If I longed occasionally for a little more light and shade (lustily can get wearisome), I thought back to the last Operette hero I saw (no names, no packdrill) … and thanked the stars for a leading man with a real, ringing voice, who attacks his music with joyful confidence..
Sylva Varescu, prima donna and café singer, is not exactly a bundle of laughs either. And I’m afraid guest star Anna Maria Kaufmann just didn’t succeed in making a likeable character out of her. You didn’t care. Alas, neither did she succeed in singing much of the well-known music with which the part is crammed, in the way and with the sureness and flair it needs. Her voice, rich and round at the bottom, all right in the middle, wobbles and goes frequently off pitch in the upper register. And I’m sure I heard a backing tape click in when she reached the very top. This young lady is the original German Christine of Phantom of the Opéra, thus a ‘name’. She doubtless sells tickets: but I’m afraid she effectively let the show down. Sylva’s music is the heart of Kálmán’s beautiful score. It needs beautiful singing.
So a really nice night out, which ended up -- suitably -- with pink champagne with the amazing Yvonne Kálmán, daughter of the composer, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly as long as I had the show… then home across Berlin … was it really 1am? I am back in business.
PS Note to the Waldbühne management. Where I come from it would be illegal to have seating for 20,000 with the only lavatories at the top of an escalier that the elderly (me) and, above all, the handicapped (me) cannot climb … four hours and several glasses of wine … I’m afraid the venue is off limits for me henceforth. Shame.