Die Lustige Witwe, Lehar
General Dress Rehearsal 19th January, 2009
Harry Kupfer’s new Merry Widow at the State Opera in Hamburg opens with a “Gotcha”! moment: we’re on the site of a bombed-out film studio in Paris, 1945, with a few exhausted soldiers taking a break from battle in their army Jeep. We feel the gloomy pall of WW II falling over the audience, who had been hoping to enjoy an evening of light-hearted operetta entertainment, and instead fear they’re facing yet another Regietheater piece threatening to expose the darker side of their (German) humanity. Fortunately, Mr. Kupfer knows well enough that this light operetta cannot support that kind of ham-fisted “interpretation”, and that it should be allowed to function as the pleasantly sweet slice of escapism that it is: the soldiers crank up their portable radio and the dusty tunes of the opening filter through, as the soldiers smile and nod in nostalgic remembrance of times gone by. And so we begin the journey through Mr. Kupfer’s surprising (if not always wholly successful) Merry Widow, in which he has tried to present this operetta as something superficial and escapist, while simultaneously allowing it to self-referentially explore the deeper themes of collective memory, the passage of time, and the very timeless and culturally-evolving need for entertainment to provide a refuge from our current realities.
At first, the play-within-a-play device seems straightforward enough, as we travel back in time to an imagined (and grotesquely Gothic) 1920’s Paris, with the aid of some very interesting video projections designed by Hans Schavernoch; the “soldiers” turn out to be our stars Danilo (Nikolai Schukoff) and Hanna Glawari (Camilla Nylund), whom we see gradually adopting the roles of the characters in the opera, incorporating various charming devices such as literally reading off of a script together. It is a delicate and confusing dance that Mr. Schukoff succeeds at, whereas Ms. Nylund seems a bit lost: one wasn’t sure, for example, whether her aggressive brusqueness as Hanna was intended to reflect her “true” butch soldier-self, or was just a not terribly effective attempt at expressing Hanna’s spirited, uncultivated nature.
I should mention here that there is a lot of dialogue in this show, and very little of it was audible, much less comprehensible. This was especially unfortunate as there were no supertitles, which was probably not a wise choice. The singers, as is often the case with spoken text in operas, generally seemed out of sorts in the dialogue, with poor inflection and timing that resulted in a loss of dramatic momentum (Ms. Nylund unfortunately was the worst of the lot in this regard). Exceptions to this were Günter Neumann, as Baron Mirko Zeta, who stood out for his always clear and colorful speaking voice, and Mr. Schukoff, who is a natural actor and singer, with an easy warmth and good attention to dramatic detail.
We were well entertained for the rest of the first act, as it bounced back and forth between decades and then jumped forward to a Technicolored version of the early 1960’s in the now-rebuilt film studio (costume designer Yan Tax got to show off his talent here, with his impeccable pastel confections). Especially captivating were the effervescent charm of Gabriele Rossmanith as Valencienne and the elegant singing of her squire Camille, sung by Jun-Sang Han (I will forgive him his somewhat awkward leg-fondling of Ms. Rossmanith in their love scene). However, one was entirely unaware that Valencienne was in fact a married woman, as this was never clearly established – one of many narrative details that Mr. Kupfer apparently felt were unnecessary to clarify for his audience, to the detriment of the (lacking) comic tension.
Operetta, after all, relies on a few things for its success: good dancing, good comic timing, energy, and a kind of quirky sensibility – and this production disappoints by providing these only sporadically. Certain big chorus numbers and the usually comic “Girls, Girls, Girls!” were all but unchoreographed; some key comic moments (Zeta discovering his wife in the summerhouse) were bungled by badly-timed staging. There was far too much of the chorus milling about, and one grew weary of the constant presence of the (arm-weary) boom operators and cameramen in the second act. One sensed the audience’s boredom as well in the extended “phone conversations” between Danilo and Hanna Glawari that dragged on inexplicably and uneventfully. Maestro Kamensek, in the pit, also failed to do much to enliven the show, with conducting that came across as stiff and joyless.
The show plodded on through the second act and became firmly entrenched in the Studio, never again returning to our soldiers, whose Jeep became a distant ghost (in what must have been a very expensive set-piece: an entire car fabricated out of Plexiglas). The black-and-white, Gothic images of Old Europe and the dancing girls of Maxim’s were replaced by nauseatingly candy-colored images of palm trees and beaches (and, amusingly and horrifyingly, an Eiffel Tower drowning in a tropical sea); there was a sense of the cheapening of the culture (literally, in the video projections of current newspaper headlines announcing the economic collapse, and figuratively, in the giant Euro-bills forming the “summerhouse” structure featuring a soft-porn image of a naked woman), and a loss of cultural memory. The past and its delights and horrors was truly past, inaccessible, to be replaced by new delights and horrors. Yet the human comedy, and our desire to be entertained by it, plays on, unchanging. If only Mr. Kupfer had made it more entertaining, or more comic.