Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Partytime in the Pfalz

ZELLER: DER VOGELHÄNDLER [The Bird Seller] (New Production)
Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
19 February 2012 

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Karsten Süß, Sharon Kempten, Jud Perry

Have you ever arrived at a party late without a proper excuse? I was tardy to a holiday performance of Der Vogelhändler (The Bird Seller) at the Hessian State Theater in Wiesbaden because I hadn’t checked the starting time. A plausible reason? yes. A proper excuse? no.
(seated) Axel Wagner

Anyway, Wiesbaden’s new production of Carl Zeller’s delightful operetta is indeed a party unto itself -- eine Gaudi, as south Germans might say. The composer and his librettists (Moritz West and Ludwig Held) might be aghast at some alterations Ansgar Weigner and his production team have made to interpolate a couple of hilarious rhymes about certain German scandal-ridden politicians. But if the play’s the thing, they couldn’t object to the audience’s reaction at the performance I attended. Weigner’s production takes its cue from Broadway rather than Vienna, where Vogelhändler received its World Premiere in 1891. (In fact, it also had a successful run in New York that same year under the punchy title The Tyrolean.)  Robert Schrag’s deliciously kitschy sets and Renate Schnitzer’s pre-Empire costumes are as eye-popping as any you’ll find in Times Square or in the West End.
Annette Luig

Whatever you call it, the work has the lickety-zip and pace of American post-war period musicals like Hello Dolly! and My Fair Lady, as well as the sort of tart wit that you usually identify with the likes of Anything Goes and Crazy for You.  Its music ranges from rousing to rapturous and clings to the ear long after you've left the theater.

Vogelhändler is a comedy of opposing cultures, centered on the off-again-off-again romance between Adam, a bird seller from the Austrian provinces, and Christl, the village post mistress in 18th century Rhineland Pfalz. You don’t need to ask whether boy gets girl: it’s an operetta. 
Axel Wagner, Kerstin Witt

Zeller is thankfully democratic in giving nearly every member of the cast at least one big chance to shine. As Adam the bird merchant, Carsten Süss has many chances to show off his ideally suited tenor, and he makes the most of his opportunities. Jud Perry is the preciously foppy fool Stanislaus, Sharon Kempton a soubrettish Christl, Annette Luig a sympatheic noblewoman Marie. Axel Wagner as Weps always appears to know more than he’s letting on. Klaus Krückenmeyer and Wolfgang Vater are sublimely silly as the deans -- one deaf, the other blind -- who examine Adam for his elegibility to work at court. Especially delightful is Kerstin Witt as a lady aristocrat, who avers that the years since her husband’s death are the happiest she’s ever known.

Wolfgang Wengenroth keeps the proceedings moving spritely, but gamely lingers above the downbeat in the better known waltzes. Orchestra and chorus performed attentively, though one might have asked for a dollop more schmalz.

For all the stellar performances on stage, the true star of the evening was the audience: clapping in rhythm and singing along in the big numbers with no need of prompting. The last time I experienced something remotely like it was during a matinee of Rock of Ages last year on Broadway, when a nostalgic and well-lubricated audience spontaneously joined in some of the show’s rock hits from the 1980s.

Vogelhändler is also a perfect match physically for the Wiesbaden State Theater, arguably the most ornate performing venue in Germany. The original building was designed in the Neo-Baroque style and built by the architectural firm Fellner and Hellmer in 1894. The theater suffered severe damage through allied air strikes in 1945, but it was restored to its original splendor between 1976 and 1978. The opera and the State Orchestra served as way stations for Otto Klemperer, Heinrich Hollreiser, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Ulf Schirmer and many other notable conductors.

The opera house can attribute its uniformly robust acoustics to wall-to-wall moldings that grace the interior from gallery to parquet. They keep the sound bouncing from crevice to crevice.

Currently, the theater has three stages serving music theater, plays and workshops. The opera house is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, including stage elevators and turntable. Energetic subscription and education programs keep all the enterprises well-attended throughout the season.

Net-net: Vogelhändler may strike some as sentimental rubbish, and a case might be made for denouncing Zeller's enchanting chain of incandescent melodies as sleight trash. If you think we of the Great Unwashed would profit more from attending Pelleas et Melissande or Lulu, may I refer you to Noel Coward in Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”  Prost! 


Production photos: Martin Kaufhold; Other photos courtesy Hessisches Theater Wiesbaden; Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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