After twelve long years, Oscar Straus’ Ein Walzertraum has made it back to the Volksoper, the place where it belongs for its indestructible Viennese spirit and never-ending popularity, and where Robert Meyer, the house’s boss and director on this occasion, customarily ensures that the traditional operetta is sheltered from modernist conceptual stagings.

Anita Götz (Franzi Steingruber), Thomas Paul (Leutnant Niki) © Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper
Anita Götz (Franzi Steingruber), Thomas Paul (Leutnant Niki)
© Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper

In fact, a stranger to the place would be surprised to hear that the production was new, for the elaborate art deco set and gorgeous period costumes (both by Christof Cremer) could have well been around for twenty years, and those who have seen the film version from 1969 might even guess forty. Some might call this old-fashioned, homespun or uninspired, but operetta nostalgists will love this arts-and-crafts staging that will presumably outlive more eccentric ideas like the delicious ballet of dancing Sachertorten and other Viennese sweets that the Oper Graz showed last season.

That said, the new Volksoper production gets the obligatory twist with a revised and updated version of the libretto by Felix Dörmann and Leopold Jacobson (with English supertitles) as well as a few recognizably contemporary touches: when the Viennese lieutenant Niki refuses to consummate his marriage in order to protest against his unwanted role as the Prince Consort in an obscure German princedom, he pretends to have a homoerotic interest in his friend and fellow lieutenant Montschi. While the two waltz together to the famous earworm “Da draußen im duftigen Garten”, courtiers are curiously spying on the scene from all sides and Princess Helene’s lady-in-waiting graciously faints in the background after the consumption of more than just one glass of cognac. So to the open-minded operetta goer, what could have been a cheap thigh-slapping joke was at least done tastefully.

This scene was also a turning point for tenor Thomas Paul (Niki) who, after previous difficulties in sustaining longer phrases, found his form and gave a fine performance for the rest of the evening, as did the rest of the male cast (Andreas Daum as Prince Joachim, Markus Meyer as his scheming cousin, and Roman Martin as Lieutenant Montschi). Particularly enjoyable was Anita Götz as Franzi Steingruber, the conductor of the Viennese ladies’ orchestra that charms the Germans as well as the homesick Prince Consort. Hers was as good as operetta singing gets these days and one would have wished to hear her in “G’stellte Mädeln, resch und fesch”, the song that introduces her orchestra. That, however, was Renée Schüttengruber’s part (cymbal player Fifi), but while she looked as fresh and pretty as the girls she was singing about, her wide vibrato was more that of a matronly diva. The stiff German princess Helene in need of love advice from Franzi, the Viennese suburb girl, was given by Caroline Melzer who sang with a tone as clean as her buttoned-up dresses. Her voice blended beautifully with Thomas Paul’s in the final duet and the latter would have made a grand ending of the performance, had not the director got in the way: insecure whether to leave or not to leave for their bedroom (and finally beget an heir to the throne), the princely couple was waiting quietly until the orchestra was almost silent, missing a plausible moment for its exit – which made some in the audience miss the sign that the operetta had ended.

Down in the pit, one got what one expects when seeing Ein Walzertraum on the billboard, but with more depth than can usually be hoped for. This is mainly to the composer’s credit, as Straus didn’t churn out one-dimensional kitsch but delivered a beautifully orchestrated score with solos that dovetail elegantly with the vocal lines. But it is left to operetta conductors like Guido Mancusi not only to bring verve to the famous waltz themes, but also to ensure that the emotional ups-and-downs on stage are properly backed by the music as well.

Kudos go to both him and Meyer for not turning this operetta into a sticky-sweet waltz festival or a slapstick comedy with musical accompaniment, but for telling an interesting story where despair and anger get their place beside flirting and true love – as well as hackneyed but ever-popular Austria vs. Germany jokes.

Whether this production will prove to be a hit comparable to the Volksoper’s production of Die lustigen Nibelungen (“The Merry Nibelungs”, Oscar Staus’s first operetta), remains to be seen; more consistent vocal performances would be needed.