Christmas is a time of limited expectations in Europe’s concert halls and opera houses. Exit rare works and bold productions; enter hundreds of Nutcrackers, Hansel and Gretels, and the inevitable Beethoven 9s.
So it was brave of Berlin’s Komische Oper to programme Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Bajadere for late December. Though it was a huge success at its 1921 premiere in Vienna, Kálmán’s exotic operetta has disappeared almost completely from the repertoire.
With his declared intent to bring more operetta to the Komische Oper, the house’s new intendant Barry Kosky makes an important statement about the position of his company within Berlin’s crowded operatic landscape. Like London’s English National Opera, Vienna’s Volksoper, or Munich’s Gärtnerplatz, the Komische Oper has always set itself apart from the city’s other opera companies by being the one in that performs works in the vernacular. The idea used to be to make opera comprehensible to the masses. The advent of surtitles, the increasing internationalisation of casts, and a general trend away from clear diction for singers has long since rendered this premise redundant.
The Komische Oper at least has the formidable theatre legacy of Walter Felsenstein as a further distinguishing feature. After some directionless years, the house was dragged back to the forefront of Berlin opera by Kosky’s predecessor, Andreas Homoki. His strong focus on innovative stagings and his experimental touch with repertoire gave the Komische Oper some of its individuality back without really solving the language problem.
Kosky, an Australian with Russian-Polish-Hungarian-Jewish ancestry, is untroubled by any sentimental attachment to the German language, and has already presented an opera in English (American Lulu). But Die Bajadere belongs firmly to the Komische Oper’s own tradition – it was here that the operetta had its German premiere, just a few months after its Viennese opening.
Kálmán’s feather-light confection uses the implausible tale of Indian prince Radjami’s love for operetta star Odette Darimonde for a revue-like tour of musical styles, from waltz with Hungarian fire through jazz to the shimmy, within the context of a theatre-within-a-theatre story of fleet wit and irony. Stefan Soltesz conducts this concert performance with elegance and verve, and a solid cast brings Kálmán’s sparkling score to life. Erika Roos and Daniel Brenna hurl themselves into the leading roles with energy and humour, Dominique Horwitz plays Pimprinette and narrator with a fake French accent and a fine sense of timing, Mirka Wagner sparkles as the husband-swapping Marietta, and Tom Erik Lie steals the show as a shimmy-dancing chocolatier. It is a pity that so little of Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald’s bitingly funny text is audible – particularly during the choral numbers. But in all, this evening of musical discovery and laughter well rewarded the full house, and bodes well for Kosky’s further operetta plans.