Well, it was fun while it lasted. One of the most controversial aspects of Germany’s new “lockdown light”, which came into power on 2nd November, was the fact that it ordered the closing of cultural venues – concert halls, opera houses, theatres, museums – which during Covid restrictions had been models of compliance, bending over backwards to create safe environments in which artists could continue to do what they do for the general benefit of a population that takes its art seriously.

Tom Erik Lie (Die Großherzogin)
© Monika Rittershaus

Few establishments had been as pro-active, positive and fast on their feet as the Komische Oper. It went back to the drawing board to come up with more-or-less fully revised, Covid-compliant start to its season, taking the new restrictions as an invitation for innovation. They have an advantage, of course, in often presenting repertoire – especially when it comes to operetta – where the concept of Werktreue carries only moderate weight.

Indeed, in an interview in the programme for his hastily assembled, socially-distanced production of Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (given here as “Die Großherzogin von Gerolstein"), intendant Barrie Kosky expresses his admiration for the composer’s willingness to dump a good chunk of his original 1867 score once it proved less then fully effective on the stage. 

Kosky also took to the stage ahead of the opening night, to deliver an impassioned statement bristling with barely concealed indignation at the new restrictions – and frustration that this show would have to close pretty much as soon as it opened (though performances are still scheduled for December). He promised us “two-and-a-half hours of nonsense” as a statement of proud defiance.

Jens Larsen (General Boum)
© Monika Rittershaus

And that, by and large, was what he delivered. With no time to produce sets (the production was planned in a matter of weeks), Klaus Bruns’ costumes were left to do a lot of the heavy lifting: a riot of pointy helmets, absurdly wide frocks and Humpty Dumpty-like fat suits (think the Mikado in Jonathan Miller’s famous ENO production) put together using an array of sparkly camouflage and garish patterns. 

Drag played its part, too, in an energetic quartet of gender fluid dancers and, above all, in the decision to cast a baritone in the title role. Tom Erik Lie’s performance was a tour de force, admittedly, replete with homages to Marlene Dietrich (I think) and the mad Lucia di Lammermoor. But Kosky offered no better reason for having the role taken by a man (something that arguably undermined his professed admiration for Offenbach’s ability to create strong female characters) than the fact his ensemble had the singers who could carry it off. Similar reasoning, one imagined, was behind the fact that this Großherzogin, while singing Stefan A. Troßbach’s new German words, unexpectedly delivered her dialogue in exaggerated Swedish.

Christian Oertel (Baron Grog), Jens Larsen (Boum), Christoph Späth (Prinz Paul), Tijl Faveyts (Puck)
© Monika Rittershaus

Both decisions undoubtedly brought laughs, and one has to admire both Kosky’s and Lie’s skill in spinning out the ideas as effectively as they did. But so many additional unsubtle ingredients robbed Offenbach’s expertly balanced soufflé of its urbane, airy absurdity. There was no denying the energy of the cast or the achievement in putting the show together so swiftly, and the desire to make up for a lack of set with strenuous exuberance elsewhere was understandable. But the constant striving for laughs, with several gags stretched well beyond breaking point, wore thin.

Nevertheless, the rest of the small cast played their socks off, including Jens Larsen, excellent as a po-faced General Boum, Ivan Turšić tireless as the nice-but-dim Fritz and Alma Sadé wonderfully engaging as Wanda, equal parts sparky and unhinged. Stepping up to the podium at short notice, Alevtina Ioffe conducted a 16-strong orchestra which, though it couldn’t help but sound a little thin, played with spirit.