There is no show curtain for Bluebeard at the Komische Oper Berlin, just the clean, empty stage with the lights on. One wondered if this had something to do with the show’s first night having been suddenly postponed for a week just days before the scheduled opening. But soon enough, the overture starts with thunder and lightning while a small Cupid with white feather wings appears dragging a heavy cart. He is whipped on by Death who sits atop this vehicle with the bold letters “Vanitas” emblazoned on its side. Soon the carriage transforms into a stage within a stage upon which director Stefan Herheim sets the operetta with a plethora of slapstick gags, dances, special effects and allusions to current Berlin politics. More is not always better. In fact, this production would greatly benefit from some serious trimming.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Barbe-bleue) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Barbe-bleue)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Barbe-bleue is an opéra bouffe composed by Jacques Offenbach in 1866, with a libretto by the experienced duo of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, best known for their libretto to Bizet's Carmen. Bluebeard is of special significance to the Komische Oper since its longtime Intendant and stage director, Walter Felsenstein, staged this piece in 1963 and it ran for a total of 369 performances right up to 1992.

It is the story of a knight who marries five wives and orders each one killed when he tires of them. Only the sixth, Boulette, outsmarts him and joins forces with his minister and his alchemist, who had not carried out the knight’s orders, and frees all five wives from their dungeon. This being operetta, there are a total of eighteen characters, all involved in many subplots, all of which contribute to a lively chaos. Herheim has added scenes of text dealing with local Berlin politics, which are funny the first time around, but fall flat on their faces when repeated. It is sung and spoken in German, but surtitles make Herheim's text-heavy version somewhat more understandable.

<i>Barbe-bleue</i> at Komische Oper © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Barbe-bleue at Komische Oper
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

There are two outstanding characters who anchor this production through the sheer force of their symbiotic relationship: Cupid played by Rüdiger Frank, who is all of 1.34m tall and suffers from a bone atrophying disease that has deformed his spine considerably. Herheim emphasizes the fragility and disfigurement of Frank in this symbolic role as the bearer of love. Cupid, with his miniature white wings and a pinkish girdle, is whipped, kicked and tortured, but always manages to stand up again, if for no other purpose than to sit on a swing above the copulating multitude below, dispensing rose petals and commenting on the goings-on. His counterpart is Death, portrayed by Wolfgang Häntsch: tall, macho in black leather and grisly make-up, always on the lookout for opportunities to catch a soul unawares and take him to the Other Side.

Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a robust Bluebeard, with an armoured costume that is reminiscent of the famous Walter Felsenstein production. The stalwart tenor Peter Renz is a caricature King Bobèche, always at the ready to use his sceptre as a symbol of his (sexual) power or as a weapon. His Queen is mezzo Christiane Oertel who fills her role with dignity. Mezzo Sarah Ferede is Boulotte, the cunning red-haired sixth wife, who has to endure being poisoned and then brought back to life again by a dildo (or is it a banana?) being duly removed from under her skirts.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Barbe-bleue) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Barbe-bleue)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Conductor Stefan Soltesz tries to make the best of the bombastic score, delivering a wide-awake sound but there are moments when the sheer amount of action on stage jeopardizes singers and orchestra synchronisation. As a result, important comic timing suffers and threatens to derail by being too slow. Offenbach’s music and plot thrive from an overblown grotesque delivered at a speedy tempo, not dragged along as it is here. The excellent chorus sings and plays for all the score is worth.

Christof Hetzer (set design) and Esther Bialas (costumes) deliver a hodgepodge of sets and costumes styles ranging from Renaissance to Las Vegas, with a nod to traditional Bavarian and mid-century drabness.

After the various happy ends have taken place, it is time for Cupid and Death to break up and go their separate ways. But they can’t let go of each other and end up pursuing one another on the revolving stage, presumably eternally.