The 1909-10 season was good for Franz Léhar. The composer had three operettas premiere, and the most successful, Der Graf von Luxemburg, got over 300 consecutive performances in Vienna. The score, full of irritatingly catchy waltzes and polkas alternating with lush ballads, makes it easy to hear why.

Oliver Breite (The Manager) © Hans Jörg Michael
Oliver Breite (The Manager)
© Hans Jörg Michael

The story is the standard silly stuff of the genre. In exchange for a small fortune, the impoverished Count of Luxembourg agrees to a sham marriage to a bride he will never see (the opera singer Angèle). Three months later, they will divorce, and she, now a Countess, will be able to marry the Russian Prince Basil Basilowitsch. (He is desperately in love with her but cannot marry a commoner; she loves nobody but is enchanted by the prospect of becoming a princess.) By chance, the Count and Angèle meet and fall in love, only to discover that they are both married – to each other! Still, the Count has already spent the Prince’s money and has given his word to divorce Angèle. Things look grim for the lovers until the Countess Kokozowa appears unexpectedly and reveals her long-standing engagement to the Prince, which she forces him to honor, leaving the Count and Angèle free to remain married.

Jens-Daniel Herzog’s staging for Deutsche Oper am Rhein is a wild ride. It takes the operetta too seriously and not seriously enough, at the same time. We get flashes of the Count’s depression and disgust with life in the midst of his wild partying. We also get a devil popping out of a refrigerator when the Faustian bargain is sealed and a dragon guarding the opera stage door. Prince Basil is a mafia boss whose clumsy aides are the stuff of slapstick comedy – but with pistols, which they readily brandish and shoot. Adding a note of menace to the opera grounds its lightheartedness, but it also undermines the poignancy of the Count’s character arc. It’s hard to blame him for selling his name when he does so at gunpoint.

Kay Stiefermann (René, Graf von Luxemburg) and Romana Noack (Angèle Didier) © Hans Jörg Michael
Kay Stiefermann (René, Graf von Luxemburg) and Romana Noack (Angèle Didier)
© Hans Jörg Michael

The show’s star is baritone Kay Stiefermann as the Count, who combines matinee idol looks with a swoon-inducingly satiny voice. It is easy to sympathize with Angèle’s sudden love for him, despite his character’s many and obvious flaws (such as drinking to excess and literally throwing money around). Angèle’s part underwent a substitution due to illness, so the audience was treated to the powerful tones of soprano Maraike Schröter. This isn’t quite the ideal repertoire for her – just a few thrilling top notes were sprinkled throughout a role that largely relied on her blander middle range. Still, she acted and sang it with great flair on short notice.

Mezzo-soprano Doris Lamprecht stole the final act as the fiery Countess Kokozowa. (She and her gun-slinging henchwomen were more than a match for the Prince and his thugs!) Her aria, “Was ist das für ‘ne Zeit” got the “little list” treatment, with updates commenting on everything from email to global warming to Brexit. A joke about Rhineland-Westphalia relations got chuckles from the locals. Lamprecht’s voice was just right for the part: edgy, dark-hued, and more concerned with expression than beauty of sound.

Lavinia Dames (Juliette) and Cornel Frey (Armand) © Hans Jörg Michael
Lavinia Dames (Juliette) and Cornel Frey (Armand)
© Hans Jörg Michael

The rest of the main cast was a mixed bag. Monika Rydz (Juliette) and Cornel Frey (Armand) made a cute secondary couple. Rydz’ voice was silvery but uneven, sometimes soaring and sometimes falling short. Johannes Preißinger was full of contrasts as the Russian Prince—imposing and sober in appearance, but singing his character’s twee music with evident glee, though inconsistent accuracy. Oliver Breite acted the Frosch-like character of hotel manager-bellboy-porter-liftboy-waiter with good timing and a few funny gags that got tiresome as they were repeated.

Under the baton of Patrick Francis Chestnut, the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker struggled through the operetta. Tentative brass playing and frequent coordination issues with singers were audible, though they couldn’t kill the infectious energy of Léhar’s score. The chorus sang strong and clear as both Carnival revelers and the opera company within the opera (all simultaneously dressed for different productions, oddly enough). The dancers also impressed, particularly Ivan Keim, who danced a gender-bent, comedic black swan, complete with extensive pointe work.

Der Graf von Luxemburg at Deutsche Oper am Rhein isn’t a perfect rendition of Léhar’s ebullient operetta. It’s still an excellent time.