Emmerich Kálmán’s Gräfin Mariza is celebrating her 90th birthday this year, but just like my slightly younger great-aunts, who introduced me to this operetta at the tender age of five, she is far from ready for a care home. As in Wiener Blut, director Thomas Enzinger and set/costume designer Toto have come up with another imaginative response to the question of why and how the bygone genre of operetta should be produced today.

Carsten Süss (Graf Tassilo) and Astrid Kessler (Gräfin Mariza) © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Carsten Süss (Graf Tassilo) and Astrid Kessler (Gräfin Mariza)
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper

The terrace and rooms of a grand mansion, presented in stylized fashion with oversized pastel pink roses peering from beyond the backdrop, amount to a period look with a twist for the story of the impoverished Count Tassilo, who is employed (incognito) as a bailiff for the titular Countess Mariza. Light sandy colours for dresses and day suits, in addition to the indispensable black of evening attire, add to the opulent feel, which shapes up assuredly and should satisfy all but the fussiest of traditionally minded patrons. To this background, the director lets his associations run free: “Komm mit nach Varasdin”, where passion famously rhymes with goulash sauce (Leidenschaft / Gulaschsaft), sees Graf Zsupán multiplied as dancer-doubles who perform a few Michael Jackson moves and even enact a tribute to Stomp! with rakes and garbage bin lids. “Schwesterlein – Brüderlein” sees Lisa and Tassilo look back on themselves in their nursery where toys (a tin soldier and dolls) are similarly brought to life with dancers. In Act III, Volksoper legend Helga Papouschek and general manager Robert Meyer land laughs as Tassilo’s rich aunt Duchess Božena and her servant Penižek, the key gag being that the Duchess’s overly taut features (one too many face lifts) require her manservant to express emotions on her order. The latter is a former theatre critic and speaks mostly in titles of famous dramas ranging from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” to Hofmannsthal’s “Jedermann”. Enzinger’s eclectic associations with individual scenes in the work are held together by impeccable stage direction, as well as a little side plot that establishes a bit of critical distance to the goings-on: a little girl (Leonie Dareb from the Volksoper children’s chorus) learns through Mariza’s eccentric but likeable servant Tschekko (Michael Gempart) about the good old days and love.

Gräfin Mariza © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Gräfin Mariza
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper

Musically, house debutant Alexander Rumpf had things under control in the pit and cued vivid playing, give or take shrill flutes on two or three occasions. It also has to be said that this première didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. Annely Peebo’s gypsy Manja struggled vocally, while Gregory Rogers’ violin playing was a bit rough. Bohdana Szivacz has also produced more inspired choreography than the interpolated overture business involving gypsy dancers in gold-trimmed black costumes. After the overture though, things improved greatly in every respect. The night’s favourites were Volksoper ensemble members Anita Götz as Lisa and Boris Eder’s heavily Hungarian-accented Count Zsupán. I was especially impressed with the latter because his singing is getting better every time I hear him and is slowly but steadily catching up with his abilities as a comedian.

The most important part in Gräfin Mariza is Count Tassilo, as it is his actually his story that is being told; he gets to sing most of the hit tunes as well. Carsten Süss didn’t disappoint although I wish that he had an easier top as well as more Viennese charm – when he speaks, rather than sings, his accent outs him as a German, which is a bit odd for a Viennese count nostalgic for his home town, although any foreign audience members aren’t likely to notice a difference. The title role saw the successful house debut of Astrid Kessler, who impressed with great musicality and had only a hint of shrillness in her top, but she wasn’t received by the audience with the enthusiasm I expected. This may be due to a production concept that I liked very much, but perhaps left those who crave for the cliché of the paprika-blooded Hungarian seductress a bit nonplussed. Enzinger’s Mariza is an urbane, chain-smoking lady of the Twenties who plays her wicked games with the impoverished Count Tassilo out of sheer boredom. But perhaps more than all the updated jokes and the many directing tricks already mentioned, it is this coolness of the rich and famous, along with the difficult economic situation of the 1920s, that ultimately links this production to the present. “You wouldn’t believe what you can do with such a dusty old work,” said my companion during the intermission. I agree.