Along with Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, Wiener Blut is generally considered to be Johann Strauss’s most popular operetta, although it is really a pasticcio for which Adolf Müller recycled parts of 31 popular dance pieces, artistically weaving various motifs into a new score. Strauss was amazed by the result (“I wrote that?” he is reported to have exclaimed more than once), but luckily did not live to see the failure of its première at the Carltheater and the house’s subsequent bankruptcy, ultimately leading to its director’s suicide.
Nowadays it is hard to imagine that a best-of-Strauss project should falter, but Wiener Blut poses a few dramaturgical challenges. Firstly, the original music did not always work so smoothly as a vocal line, so short lines get repeated and varied, while the story (a married couple, the husband’s mistress and another potential mistress, his boss and his servant form three happy couples after a lot of confusion) lies more in the spoken parts. Secondly, when the latter is not delivered with a good dose of humour and overstatement of various Viennese clichés, things can get tacky or vulgar – or both.
The good news is that this Volksoper production that premièred as last season’s opener both manages to give the piece an ironic twist without scaring off longstanding patrons. This is mostly achieved by a thoroughly reworked libretto with tongue-in-cheek references to current local news headlines and famous quotations (“Family life interferes with private life” by Karl Kraus is my favourite for the holiday season). Much of the fun, however, is untranslatable and therefore doesn’t make it into the English supertitles, but then that leaves room for the international audience’s imagination – I’d give the proverbial penny for what the many Asian visitors think when they read “Kagler is philosophising about the high society, the Viennese spirit and Austrian politics” to Wolfgang Böck singing in alcohol-fuelled voice.
As for the visuals, things start out pretty daringly by Volksoper standards: willing Viennese girls lift their skirts under a bright red heart dangling from the ceiling, while other stereotypes that are first shown in the overture and return in other scenes include Strauss himself as his own gilt statue from Vienna’s Stadtpark and Hans Makart, whose paintings decorate the inside of Count Zedlau’s villa. But my favourite was a child-sized Emperor Franz Joseph next to Sisi who naturally wore the enormous white dress from the famous Winterhalter portrait. The return of these figures is supposedly meant to remind the audience that things are not to be taken as seriously as the stylish but rather conventional sets and costumes by Toto suggest – that is with the exception of Act III. “Strauß” in German doesn’t only mean a bunch of flowers, but also “ostrich”, and this has surely been the inspiration to use three gigantic ostrich eggs with a red velvet nightclub interior as the arbours where the protagonists spy on each other. These are watched by three gigantic ostriches and since all things turn individually on the revolving stage, a “Strauß ballet” suddenly gets a special meaning.
The human ballet (choreography: Bohdana Szivacz) led to some excellent performances that included hopping on folding chairs to the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka. Conducting (Alexander Drčar) was as suitably Viennese as can be expected from the Volksoper, though in parts with spare instrumentation not always as smooth as in Oscar Straus’ Ein Walzertraum. Martina Dorak replaced the sick Anita Götz and while I would have preferred to have heard the Volksoper’s safest bet these days, Dorak didn’t sound like a substitute at all, singing as if she had been through all the rehearsals. This is to be rated all the more as the Personenregie in this production is as complex as in a genuine theatre play. Disappointing, on the contrary, was Ursula Pfitzner as her antagonist the Countess. While she possesses an attractive, even erotic speaking voice, her singing never got to flow, but consisted of a line-up of single notes. Johanna Arrouas sang Pepi Pleininger as a classic sweet Viennese girl and one was surprised by the voluminous high speaking voice that came from her size zero body. Her voice didn’t project as well when singing, but was fine for her soubrette role. Carlo Hartmann as the Duke charmed the audience with a thick Saxon accent and a robust voice, which cannot be said of Boris Eder as Josef the servant, although his acting contributed much to everybody’s entertainment. The surprise of the evening came as Mark Adler’s Count Zedlau: it is difficult to find operetta tenors these days, so one is satisfied when one finds one who can do an entire evening without cracked or out-of-tune notes, and pleasantly surprised when you hear a capable legato from a voice with a pleasant tenor ring. That said, Wolfgang Böck, a local Viennese favourite, stole the show as Kagler with a rather proletarian rendition of the character. That might not be to everybody’s taste, but a drunk and vulgar Kagler swearing twenty-lettered four-letter words is refreshing in times where German TV makes individual dialects slowly disappear.