Die Csárdásfürstin is set at the beginning of World War I, a time of uncertainty and fear, but also one where the ruling classes of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were partying like there was no tomorrow. A contemporary staging might translate this general mood to the present where the Western world is still suffering from the fallout of the financial crisis, but the Volksoper’s production (Roman Herzl) is in its 31st year now. And there are a number of reasons, why opting for a freshly rehearsed revival in 2011 was an artistically sound decision, aside from both budget matters and its great success (during the 1980s this production also travelled to New York, Washington, Moscow and Japan).

As for the visuals, the lush set created by Pantelis Dessyllas displays a lot of ruffled curtains in burgundy and pink that sets off the rest of the set, in gold and a typically Viennese, Otto Wagner-style reseda green. And with art deco tendrils and garlands twining everywhere, the very 1980s opulence of it all still works as a nostalgic overstatement of the silver operetta era of which this, Emmerich Kálmán’s most popular work, is representative. Naturally, the set provides a magnificent backdrop for ballroom dances on the metaphorical brink of the abyss, while stressing the clash of classes where a prince cannot tolerate a marriage between his son and a czardas princess (a cabaret artiste), although he finally has to give in as he sees his family tree split into planks (so the libretto goes) because he is unknowingly married to a provincial prima donna himself.

Disrespectful, even humiliating treatment of lower-class women by carefree noblemen is denounced and the director’s view on the subject is to be applauded: it is easily forgotten, due to the powerful image of the Viennese fin-de-siècle as a golden age for the arts, that the less fortunate didn’t have it so good (an excellent programme note reminds us that they returned after twelve hours of work to tenements that provided only one toilet for dozens of inhabitants). The programme also features a facsimile of the première review of Die Csárdásfürstin in Der Adelscourier (“The Nobility Courier”), which styled itself as “the intelligent paper for the educated classes”, and naturally dismissed the work under the headline “This Goes Too Far”, which in its arrogance and defence of birthrights reflected what was shown on stage.

Musically, things didn’t get off to the most secure of starts, as house favourite Annely Peebo, singing the title role, didn’t sound like she was able to go on a US tour any time soon (as her character Sylva Varescu supposedly does), and indeed it was announced after the intermission that a virus had struck and that Martina Dorak had rushed in to save the performance. I have admired Dorak’s capabilities as a substitute before, in Wiener Blut, but this time she really outdid herself. She not only sang beautifully, but seemingly remembered the demanding choreography (Matyás Jurkovics) as well. Dancing in this piece is crucial and was generally delivered with excellence, ranging from dashing ensemble numbers to a steamy tango for the opening of Act III, where two soloists (not named in the programme) belied expectations that ballet dancers need not necessarily be great ballroom dancers.

The hit with the audience, however, was Roman Martin as Boni, who kicked his legs for the can-can perhaps even higher than the corps de ballet (and with Easter only a few days away, his bunny hops came across even funnier than usual). Unfortunately, the rather thick orchestration occasionally posed a challenge to his light buffo tenor as well as to the rest of the cast. As the male lead Prince Edwin Ronald, Thomas Sigwald hit his top notes in his first aria, but the effort this seemingly took made them sound a bit desperate; otherwise the tessitura of the piece was comfortable for him and he gave a decent performance. As his unwanted fiancée Stasi, Mara Mastalir was elegant in every respect, although one would wish for her speaking voice to project better. The minor roles were cast to type and were acted out with the fire and wit so essential to any operetta; kudos go to those who ensured that the interaction between the protagonists went smoothly and that punchlines were hit in the right hundredth of a second.

In the pit, Die Csárdásfürstin veteran Rudolf Bibl (who conducted the production’s première in 1982) had everything under control except for the first couple of bars, but that made the overture’s longing harp theme rise all the more spectacularly.

The star rating is based on Acts II and III. Act I was not taken into account, as the singer of the title role fell sick during the performance and was replaced after the interval. On a regular night, you can expect this Volksoper production to be a four-star experience, as many of the house’s ensemble members have performed in it to great acclaim.