A Night in Venice, a night in the lagoon, in other words in the shallows – here’s a comic operetta in which there is no need to look for depth. To give you the idea: two of the characters are called Erbse and Bonbon (pea and sweet), and that just about tells you all you need to know about the complexity of their characters – and not just them. We are dealing with a comedy of mistaken identity, a genre which has never gone out of style, from much treasured operas Così fan tutte, Don Pasquale, Arabella...) to Hollywood movies, not to mention short films. Which is nothing to complain about, when everyday drama is so soppy anyway. So welcome to the Venice of Johann Strauss and his librettists Friedrich Zell and Richard Genée: it is the eighteenth century and (no surprise here) it’s Carnival time.

Michael Havlicek (Pappacoda) and choir © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
Michael Havlicek (Pappacoda) and choir
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
To be precise, it’s the last day of Carnival, and the Duke of Urbino, a legendary womaniser, is in Town. He has his eye on Barbara, wife of the elderly Senator Delacqua, and has found an excuse to send her to Murano, away from her husband. Barbara, however, is intending to spend a happy evening with the very young Piselli, while the fisher-girl Annina stands in for her, but returns back to Venice in time, getting the false Barbara into some consternation, since she is the girlfriend of the Duke’s barber Caramello. However, for a farce worthy of its name, two couples and two troublemakers are clearly not enough, so we have a third couple, namely the idiotic Ciboletta, Delacqua’s cook, and Pappacoda, his celebrated macaroni cook. Also in tow with Delacqua are two elderly Senators and their wives, most notably Agricola, who makes eyes at the stud from Urbino, but doesn't end up in bed with him after all, just like all the other above-mentioned women.

All this is accompanied by light, Italianate dance music, for which, it must be noted, it is not only the Waltz King who is responsible. Richard Genée also had his finger in the pie and has to take a share of the credit for the catchy numbers “Come into the Gondola”, “Everyone is masked”, the Lagoon Waltz and the Polka “We are not anxious”. If you’re looking for a bit of a dance challenge, you can let yourself go in the overture, the one part of this operetta that is purely Strauss: at the tender age of seventeen, yours truly had the dubious pleasure of opening a ball with an ingenious choreography based on it: March, right-, left- and Fleckerlwaltz, polka and lift...

Franz Suhrada (Testaccio), Gerhard Ernst (Barbaruccio), Wolfgang Huebsch (Delaqua) © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
Franz Suhrada (Testaccio), Gerhard Ernst (Barbaruccio), Wolfgang Huebsch (Delaqua)
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
How can one stage such a work? You could do worse than follow Hinrich Horstkotte’s approach on the Volksoper’s stage. He has understood that there’s really little point in looking for psychological depth or character development, and has opted for a caricature – an affectionate one, by the way – which is gorgeous to look at: his costumes are somewhat inspired by Commedia dell’arte (the most delightful was Annina in a salmon pink dress with applique scallops on the skirt, black fishnets across her decolleté and a prawn in her hair) and the backdrop by Venice’s environmental problems: the Count of Urbino lives in an underwater palace, and the buildings in the backdrop are eventually partly sunk and partly their beam-ends.

Of course, in accordance with the running gag of the evening, no-one explains the ecological catastraphe, the large amounts of water rather builds the background in which sharks hunt swimmers and mermaids. Shark fins appear also in the shape of the Duke’s hat and various other decorations; apart from that, the staging lives on originally presented Venice clichés such as the canal in which you stay dry even when you step in it. Also, the characters are walking clichés in their whole design and behaviour, even the senators being caricatures incarnate. Direction of the acting is faultless, not that you would expect anything different in this house with this repertoire.

Ensemble © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
Ensemble
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
Speaking of expectations, these were also met in the singing: not once did the usual tenor problem appear: both tenors alike, Thomas Paul as the Count and Garrie Davislim as Caramello, gave decent performances. The vocal pick of the evening was unquestionably Anita Götz as the fisher-girl Annina, with her clear soprano, while Mauela Leonhartsberger – no offence meant! – gave us the perfect embodiment of the idiotic Ciboletta. The rest of the Ensemble were pleasant both to the ear and to the eye. On the podium, Alfred Eschwé, whom I could see clearly from where I was sitting, conducted the evening with enjoyment that was obvious to see. Between him and the orchestra, it looked simply like music-making amongst friends; he is an experienced conductor of operetta and it’s not for the first time that he was in total control of every section. What was new, on the other hand, was a break with tradition in using the version by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, meaning there was original Strauss.

On balance: lovers of Strauss, Venice and period costumed slapstick will get their money’s worth, dance lovers will get a taste of the next ball season. The rest will sit back comfortably and smile.

Translated from German by David Karlin

***11