Summer in Austria is about fleeing from the oppressive heat of the city and attending cultural events. Every hamlet where a musician of note spent the night, ate a meal or used the toilet seems to have its own little music festival. Located about 25km outside of Vienna, Baden is the closest escape. Known for its thermal springs where people flock to relax in the mineral baths and sweat in the saunas, over time, Baden has developed its own little bourgeoisie society: wealthy, provincial, and addicted to operetta.

Der Opernball
Der Opernball

The première of Der Opernball took place in Baden’s Sommerarena, a proper art nouveau building with a roof which rolls back to enjoy the summer air, weather permitting. It is located a stone’s throw from the Stadttheater in the Kurpark. The sculpted park, dotted with gazebos and tiny bars (including rustic beach-bungalow-style seats), features a classic bandstand in pastel blue. The entire experience feels like a trip backwards in time. You can easily imagine you’ve landed right in the middle of the 1950s. In fact, the entire production, with slightly more conservative garb and language, would have fared well half a century ago.

Der Opernball was premièred at the Theater an der Wien early in 1898 and is the only one of Richard Heuberger’s six published operettas which still has a place in Germanic opera/operetta repertory. Based on the comedy Les Dominos Roses by Alfred Charlemagne Delcour and Alfred Hennequin, it has all sorts of standard operetta ingredients: lascivious old men chasing younger women, cases of mistaken identity, romantic entanglements, masked costumes, random ballet that has no bearing on the plot, and humorous banter between colorful personalities.

The personalities stole the show in this production, in particular the old guard. K.S. Josef Forstner (Cisnik), a Volksoper veteran, shone as the witty head usher: “My dear, one can drink men into being more attractive”. Cisnik arranges the loges for the patrons, thus orchestrating their trysts with the skill of a puppet-master. Heinz Zuber (Theophil) was adorable as the corpulent, would-be philanderer, to the point that I actually hoped someone would finally succumb to his charms, and Edith Leyrer (Palmyra), another Vienna stage veteran, was brilliantly acerbic as his grouchy, liquor-guzzling wife. Gabriele Kridl (Dodo) was effective as the sticky-fingered, manipulative singer who toys with Theophil at the ball.

All the characters are introduced without much in the way of memorable melody or song in the first act. After this slow start, the second act was genuinely enjoyable and included the one memorable musical number from the work, the duet “Komm mit mir ins Chambre séparée”, beautifully sung by Julia Koci (Hortense) and Elvira Soukop (Heini). Vocally, the rest of the cast also performed well, particularly Matjaz Stopinsek (Georg). Thomas Sigwald (Paul), who is not blessed with an attractive sound or solid technique (and even got lost during an aria in the opening act), was the one exception to the otherwise able cast.

At the curtain call, enthusiastic fans whipped bouquets at their favorite performers and even more enthusiastic stagehands tried to shut the curtain on the cast in the middle of their bows. It was, in short, a light-hearted, enjoyable, provincial première, the memory of which will dissipate as quickly as bubbles in champagne.