Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Guys Who Like Guys Who like . . .

Our friend Sam is back in Cologne and recently saw a new production of Kalman's Die Csardasfürstin:

Cologne (First Production ever at Oper Köln) | 5 January 2011
Photo ©Paul Leclaire

At first, you'd think it's just a gimmick from an idea-starved opera director: A gay, nearly all-male production of Emmerich Kalman's popular operetta Die Csardasfürstin. But somehow, this first-ever production at Oper Köln works. Not only that, Bernd Mottl's staging reveals this popular chestnut dating from 1915, in a new and occasionally disturbing light.

All the more surprising, because neither the text nor the plot has been subjected to any perceptible changes. Hungarian variety star Sylvie Varescu (Christof Marti) has an ardent admirer in Edwin von Lippert-Weylersheim--a nobleman--(Carsten Süß). The mandates of class propriety forbid them to wed. So Sylvie embarks on a tour of America, leaving Edwin to enter loveless matrimony with his cousin, a (real) woman of appropriate pedigree. Before the betrothal takes place, though, Sylvie returns, having vanquished the New World. In the end, love conquers all, and Sylvie enters a brave new world with titled partner in tow.
Photo ©Paul Leclaire

What is remarkable about this production is that the usually ho-hum dialogue about filial duty and the survival of nobility is transformed into a transparent forum that addresses a thorny present-day issue: gay marriage. The effect is all the more powerful because the cliched euphemisms and code words are as starchy as the prevailing pre-World-War I/Ante-Stonewall mentality which utters them.

In a brilliant, sometimes unsettling stroke of theatricality, the production makes the audience participate in the demimonde of a gay nightclub, by moving it out of the opera house (currently under renovation) and thrusting it into a huge local venue named The Palladium, where the public sits at tables along intersecting runways that connect a pair of stages at either end of the hall. Since the action takes place all over the nightclub, it's difficult for anyone in the audience to leave unnoticed.
Photo ©Paul Leclaire

The well-known Swiss cabaret artist Christof Marti endows Sylvie with a smart Wallis Simpson tartiness that makes it easy to understand why a blue-blood could fall for him/her. Vocally, he attempts no operatics, but wigged-out charm, garish gowns and glamola make-up give birth to what looks like the all-grown-up love child of Charles Ludlam and Birgit Nilsson.

No report I've read has mentioned the canny resemblance between Carsten Süß's superb Edwin and Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's openly gay mayor. As he might put it: das ist auch gut so [...and that is good] (also the title of his autobiography).

The rest of the top-drawer cast, drawn mostly from Oper Köln's resident ensemble, includes Csilia Csvöri as Edwin's fiancee, Ludwig Sebus and Andreja Schneider as his parents, Martin Koch, Alexander Fedin and Burghard Braun.

Otto Pichler's campy choreography for his cross-dressed chorus line leave you wanting more production numbers. Friedrich Eggart's over-the-top costumes pay ooh-ahhh homage to Bob Mackie's legendary getups for Carol Burnett, Barbra Streisand and, not least, Cher. His nightclub setting, though, could have benefitted from the influence of Cher's latest film Burlesque.

Gerrit Prießnitz leads the starkly reduced Gürzenich Orchestra in a delightfully seedy reading of Kalman's score.

Owing to the acoustic vagaries of the Palladium as a night club, the singers are miked. Opera purists might kvetch, but the last time I visited a nitery with no sound system, there was also no electricity.

Hats off to Kalman's family for boldly granting permission for this outré production. Can you imagine the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation blessing a correspondingly avant production of, say, Flower Drum Song?

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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