Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Bird in the Hand . . . .

DER VOGELHÄNDLER
Leipzig 10 October (Premiere Revival)
Eisenach 23 October (Premiere New Production)

Der Vogelhandler in Eisenach

Forget Fledermaus. If you like/love operetta and have never heard Der Vogelhändler (“The Bird Merchant”) by Carl Zeller, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you loathe operetta, you really don't know what you're missing. Every time I hear it -- recordings or live -- I become more convinced that it’s a masterpiece.

It was a huge success at its premiere in Vienna in January, 1891. Hit productions at London’s Drury Lane and the Casino Theater in New York followed later that year. Since then, it has been rarely performed outside Austria and Germany, although it was filmed several times. The reason for its relative obscurity may reside in the libretto by Moritz West and Ludwig Held. The story of a poor song bird merchant trying to find a wife is kitchy and creaky. The eponymous hero, too, is now an historical footnote: oscine peddlers have long since gone the way of the dodo.

Ah, but the music! The score is arguably the Mother of the Modern Musical, and there is not a bum note in it.

Zeller was, by all accounts, a genius. He was born in Austria in 1842, became an attorney and began composing in his spare time. His canon of works includes about ten operettas (some of them left unfinished) and several choral works. He died of pneumonia at the age of 56, following imprisonment for perjury and injuries from a bad fall. Today, only Vogelhändler and Obersteiger (1894) are remembered and revived regularly. A pity, because his well of melody ran deep.

At the moment, there are three productions of Vogelhändler gracing the boards in Germany and Austria. So far, I’ve managed to hear two of them within a fortnight: in Leipzig and in Eisenach. To tell the truth, there’s not much to distinguish them radically. Both productions have refreshingly realistic sets and costumes (Tamara Ostwatitsch in Leipzig, Christian Rinke in Eisenach), and neither staging (Karl Absenger - Leipzig, Klaus Rak - Eisenach) would offend animal rights advocates. The Eisenach production looks a bit fresher because it’s new -- a co-operative enterprise with neighboring Meiningen (about 38 miles or 61 km away).

Musically, Roland Seifferth in Leipzig leads a briskly paced performance, and the orchestra of the Musikalische Komedie was much more attentive on October 10th than the last time I heard the ensemble play the work five years ago. Alexander Steinitz in Eisenach dwells satisfyingly on the lyrical aspect of the score, though one might welcome even more Schlagsahne in certain passages.

Vocally, the two casts are pretty much a draw. A lot of the singing is thrilling. Each cast is dominated by a superb lead tenor -- Hans-Jörg Bock in Leipzig and Jacques le Roux in Eisenach. They both have large lyric voices with enough heft to make them eligible for invitations to The Infanta’s Birthday. Before they head to the bash, though, they each could benefit from knocking off a few kilos from their midriffs. From behind a screen, Bock could pass for the much-missed Fritz Wunderlich, and le Roux sounds like a clone of wartime Franz Völker, but neither is fun to look at. Okay, neither was Pavarotti.

Both Bock and le Roux find themselves in superb company: Ruth Ingebord Ohlmann (Marie), Mirjam Neururer (Christel), Milko Milev (Weps) and Radoslaw Rydlewski (Stanislaus) in Leipzig; and Ute Ziemer (Marie), Sybille Sachs (Christel) Roland Hartmann (Weps) and Bryan Rothfuss handily multi-tasking as Stanislaus and one of the Prodekans (vice-dean) in Eisenach.

Speaking of which, few state-run German theaters must resort to so much multi-tasking as Eisenach’s main performing venue. It has been pretty much eviscerated by the current round of government cutbacks -- losing its ballet, chorus and orchestra, and it must share on, and backstage personnel with, the aforementioned Meiningen Municipal Theater. It's Never Let Me Go on an even more grotesque scale. This scandalous development is especially egregious because Eisenach is one of the cornerstones of western culture. It is, in case you don’t know, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and his house remains pretty much in its original form. It was home to Elisabeth von Thüringen (die heilige Elisabeth 1207-1231), who was the Mother Theresa of her age. Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German here. His atelier is located in a castle overlooking Eisenach named the Wartburg, where the Minnesingers held their infamous competitions and where Wagner set the second act of one of his operas. Everywhere you walk in this former DDR town of 23-thousand people history springs at you.

Judging from snippets of the intermission chatter I overheard, Eisenach’s performing arts public is an intelligent and engaged bunch.

They deserve their own theater.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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