March, 1815. The Congress of Vienna. It’s time to negotiate the post-Napoleon carve-up of Europe, for which the legendary diplomat Metternich has assembled the crowned heads of Europe. Metternich’s strategy is to provide overwhelming amounts of wine, women and song with which to distract the other diplomats while he decides the future of Europe himself.

Boris Eder (Alexander), Robert Meyer (Metternich, seated) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Boris Eder (Alexander), Robert Meyer (Metternich, seated)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien

At least, that’s the version in Der Kongress tanzt, Eric Charell’s 1931 German film which is now on the stage of the Vienna Volksoper, thanks to conductor/arranger Christian Kolonovits and director/singer Robert Meyer. The movie is a classic musical comedy, filled with Werner Richard Heymann’s singable, schmaltzy music, wrapping plenty of glamour, glitz and hilarity around a farcical plot, with a faint tinge of the surreal and some two great leading performances from Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch. How would it transfer to a real stage, most of a century later?

Boris Eder (Alexander), Anita Götz (Christel) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Boris Eder (Alexander), Anita Götz (Christel)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
The biggest successes are the two star performances. Anita Götz played Christel, the humble glove-seller with a habit of throwing bouquets of flowers at royalty in order to promote her business. The main requirement for the role is effervescence, and Götz provided that in plenty, whether being coquettishly horrid to her boyfriend Pepi (Metternich’s private secretary) or knowing and pert in the romantic scenes, with no less than the Tsar Alexander of Russia: Metternich has dispatched the unfortuate Pepi to encourage the romance between Christel and Alexander to keep the Tsar away from the congress sessions. Götz provided the best singing voice of the night, with sweetness, strength and a bit of swing; she was irrepressibly lively in the song and dance numbers.

Unknown to the otherwise all-seeing Metternich, Alexander has brought along a body double, the oafish Uralsky. Boris Eder did a good job of both roles, suitably charming as Alexander and successfully pulling of the quick change to Uralsky, who may look identical but has none of the manners of a proper emperor (and has certain constraints, like not actually being allowed to kiss any of Alexander’s women). Eder’s singing was good enough to provide a good foil for Götz in their duets.

Anita Götz (Christel), Dancers from Vienna State Ballet © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Anita Götz (Christel), Dancers from Vienna State Ballet
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Vocals were miked effectively, and with Robert Meyer’s Metternich and Michael Havlicek’s Pepi also turning in good singing performances, it was a pity that the biggest showstopping number didn’t come up to the same standard: "Wien und der Wein" was sung by Agnes Palmisano in a manner that was rather brittle. 

English surtitles were excellent in conveying as much as possible of the humour in the dialogue. Not all that much was updated from 1931 – which didn't stop one of the old gags turning out to be perfectly topical, when the Finance Minister (who spends the whole night obsessing about the cost of the Congress) suggests that it would be better if the future of Europe were decided not in Vienna but in Brussels.

The musical performance wasn’t as strong as the singing. Kolonovitz arranged the music for a sort of combination of movie orchestra, Berlin cabaret combo and 1930s big band. It was all played with plenty of vigour, but of the various styles at play, only the classic Viennese operetta passages worked as they should: there just wasn’t the swing to get a big band or cabaret feel.

Ildiko Babos (Countess), Robert Meyer (Metternich), Boris Eder (Uralsky), Thomas Sigwald (Bibikoff) © Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Ildiko Babos (Countess), Robert Meyer (Metternich), Boris Eder (Uralsky), Thomas Sigwald (Bibikoff)
© Barbara Pálffy | Volksoper Wien
Nor, for the most part, did the staging really come off. The movie is a high budget affair which provides lots of eye candy and switches rapidly between locations; on stage, designer Eva-Maria Schwenkel is limited to a single revolve which brings the various groups of characters round into a single, flock-wallpapered room. Although there is plenty of colour and fun in Caroline Rindler-Schantl’s costumes and there are some good props (such as Metternich’s non-electrical bugging device), it all feels a little on the cheap side. Anyone coming to Der Kongress tanzt expecting the kind of in-your-face high production values of a West End or Broadway musical is likely to be disappointed.

Things picked up in Act III with the greater involvement of dancers from the Vienna State Ballet, who provided some neat moves and a welcome dose of extra glamour, and the final duet between Christel and Alexander gave proceedings a good lift – as did the delightful staging trick at the end of Christel’s glove shop being turned into a thriving outlet for matryoshka dolls.