Most comedies play with some element of the theme of the thwarted marriage. Lehár’s operetta Der Graf von Luxemburg (The Count of Luxembourg) takes the opposite approach, making comedic fun of the aftermath of a sham marriage. Written, apparently in just three weeks, in 1909, the work was the composer’s first great success after The Merry Widow – Lehár was at the height of his powers and had three new works running concurrently in different theatres in Vienna that season. For his new production at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Jens-Daniel Herzog has updated the story – a Viennese take on Bohemian Paris and Russian seriousness – to the present day, with satirical nods to current political and financial issues.

Bo Skovhus, Cornel Frey, Lavinia Dames © Hans-Jörg Michel
Bo Skovhus, Cornel Frey, Lavinia Dames
© Hans-Jörg Michel

The eponymous count is penniless and succumbs to the paid offer from a Russian mafioso (“aided” by his ever-present trio of heavies) to marry an opera singer in order for her to gain an aristocratic title and, after a quickie divorce, be suitably upper-class enough to marry the Russian herself. Inevitably, after a wedding ceremony conducted through a hole in a wall, the count and opera singer meet and fall for each other. With the two fending off the threats of the Russians and with a sub-plot involving two of the count’s Bohemian friends, there’s plenty of scope for exploiting comedic possibilities. And Herzog takes them on with relish. His staging is inventive from the start, with Mathis Neidhardt’s sets allowing slick scene changes that whisk us from abstract to realism in a matter of seconds. In Act I alone, the artistic Bohemian couple, Armand and Juliette, take body painting to a new level; a pair of male dancers, clad only in tiger-skin briefs, gratuitously appear to pose and to operate a pair of follow spots during Juliette’s solo number; and the three Russian stooges are given every opportunity for slapstick. There’s surrealism, too – a devil appearing out of a fridge as the count’s deal with the mafioso is signed, the doorman of the singer’s theatre dressed in full costume as a dragon and the very ending, about which I will say no more in order not to spoil it for those who are yet to see the production.

Lavinia Dames (Juliette Vermont), Cornel Frey (Armand Brissard) © Hans-Jörg Michel
Lavinia Dames (Juliette Vermont), Cornel Frey (Armand Brissard)
© Hans-Jörg Michel

This may be Herzog’s first operetta as a director (though he has overseen a number at his home theatre in Dortmund, where he is Intendant), but he has lapped up its every possibility. The pace is frenetic yet business is meticulously choreographed, and the action only drags in Act III, where Oliver Breite’s multi-tasking, one-man hotel staff – a speaking role – verges on the tiresome.

Herzog has also been blessed with a very classy cast indeed, led by the Count of Bo Skovhus, not a singer one normally associates with the more physical side of comedy, but who was clearly in his element – his drag disguise as Juliette needs to be seen to be believed. Opposite him as the opera singer Angèle, Juliane Banse was captivating, her mezzo-tinted soprano sounding burnished and bright. Lavinia Dames played the soubrette role of Juliette to the hilt and Cornel Frey impressed as her love-sick painter lover. Bruce Rankin’s tenor rang clear as the mafioso Boris Basilowitch, and it was a treat to have a former Bayreuth Kundry in Susan Maclean for the last-act cameo role of Countess Stasa Kokozowa – incidentally, her aria listing her litany of life’s disappointments has been brought right up to date with references to certain recent political events in the US and elsewhere.

Bo Skovhus, Juliane Banse, Luis Fernando Piedra, Bruce Rankin © Hans-Jörg Michel
Bo Skovhus, Juliane Banse, Luis Fernando Piedra, Bruce Rankin
© Hans-Jörg Michel

Lehár’s score – if not as familiar outside the German-speaking lands as The Merry Widow – is one treat after another, from delightfully soupy waltz numbers to spirited marches and vigorous choruses (crisply sung here), and the resourceful orchestration was lovingly played by the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker under the Oper am Rhein’s Kapellmeister, Lukas Beikircher.