Good operetta is light, frothy and entertaining. Great operetta also has bite, and that’s what director Jan Philipp Gloger has attempted to inject into that most beloved of frothy operettas, Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin, premiered at Opernhaus Zürich on Friday and live streamed to the world over the weekend.

Annette Dasch (Sylva) © Toni Suter
Annette Dasch (Sylva)
© Toni Suter

After an overture crafted by conductor Lorenzo Viotti with gentle, lilting schmaltz and more than a hint of klezmer to go with the gypsy rhythms implied by the title, designer Franziska Bornkamm catapults us straight into the world of today’s super-rich with a brilliantly crafted on-stage yacht that rotates gently to show the posh bar area and the asides between different groups of characters. As cabaret star Sylva, Annette Dasch is thrown straight into the show’s standout number, “Heia, oheia”, announcing herself as desirable and exotic (“from Transylvania”). Dasch and her select coterie of accompanying dancers put in enough verve to make us forget the Covid-imposed restrictions: in more normal times, we would undoubtedly had massed ranks of chorus.

Sylva’s trio of wealthy admirers are credibly besotted and utterly credible as over-privileged brats. Spencer Lang’s bermuda-shorted Baron Boni drifts seamlessly between German and American slang, Martin Zysset’s Feri is gloriously sleazy, the pair of them completely winning in the duet “Die Mädis vom Chantant” as they extol the (all-too-loose) virtues of the scantily clad cabaret girls to whom Boni is distributing the cash that pays for their smiles.

Rebeca Olvera (Stasi), Spencer Lang (Boni), Pavol Breslik (Edwin), Annette Dasch (Sylva) © Toni Suter
Rebeca Olvera (Stasi), Spencer Lang (Boni), Pavol Breslik (Edwin), Annette Dasch (Sylva)
© Toni Suter

As Edwin Ronald, the one who is genuinely in love with Sylva, Pavol Breslik doesn’t quite match Lang or Zysset for operetta joie de vivre, but he wins out when it comes to the brightness, cultured timbre and easy flow of his voice. In any case, Edwin is a more hapless character. In the original, he’s at the beck and call of his overbearing father who has arranged an engagement with the Countess Stasi: in Gloger’s updating, the father isn’t anywhere near (until the end, but I won’t spoil that) and Edwin is actually already married to Stasi when we start, making his promise to marry Sylva within eight weeks suitably shocking to our modern ears (lawsuits for breach of promise, very much a reality in Kálmán's era, being consigned to the distant past).

And then the mood turns suddenly dark as Boni ushers the girls hastily and violently off the boat, having paid their pimp and not them. It casts an acid cloud over the cheerful “Ganz ohne Weiber” that follows (punctuated by the girls being turned into skivvies) and sets the tone for the evening: we revel in the good cheer of the music even as we find the characters – with the exception of Sylva – false and faintly repellent.

Pavol Breslik (Edwin), Annette Dasch (Sylva), Rebeca Olvera (Stasi), Spencer Lang (Boni) © Toni Suter
Pavol Breslik (Edwin), Annette Dasch (Sylva), Rebeca Olvera (Stasi), Spencer Lang (Boni)
© Toni Suter

When we move into Acts 2 and 3, with Edwin and Sylva more desperate, Feri ever drunker, Boni remaining a model of cynical detachment (and Stasi’s appearance in the shape of Rebecca Olvera, clearly at home in the musical theatre tradition and nailing her high notes in the middle) the plot in the original gets fairly tangled. It doesn’t really fit Gloger’s updating, so he goes surreal – the yacht transports us to the South Seas, to the icebergs of the Eskimos, then turns into Noah’s ark (with some pointed climate change references) and then transports us to Mars. I can’t honestly say I entirely followed what was supposed to be happening, but the sets and costumes were extremely easy on the eye, the music extremely easy on the ear, and proceedings suitably madcap (the haka-like South Sea island dance was particularly batty).

Annette Dasch (Sylva) © Toni Suter
Annette Dasch (Sylva)
© Toni Suter

Viotti and the Philharmonia Zürich give a delectable account of the music, the more impressive given that they could not be permitted to play in the orchestra pit, so their music was piped in from a nearby rehearsal room. My colleague Laura Servidei, who was at Zürich’s Boris Godunov last week, had severe reservations about the shortcomings of that format for spectators in the house. Those reservations do not appear to carry over to the video experience, where the quality and synchronisation of the music was as good as any normally streamed performance; I very much hope that the sound engineers in the house improve the experience rapidly.

For us watching at a distance: we could laugh a little, cry a little, enjoy a much needed dose of schmaltzy music and some top quality singing, as well as taking in the acerbic wit of Gloger’s staging. What’s not to like?


This performance was reviewed from the Opernhaus Zürich live stream.

****1