Under the headline “Why Lortzing?”, the evening’s programme lists 20 reasons by Lortzing biographer Jürgen Lodemann why this composer should not be forgotten, including the fact that Lortzing’s operas were the most-performed in Germany for about 150 years. But while this information is interesting, Der Wildschütz needs no excuse to be staged, for the piece has everything a light comedy needs: the wedding of an odd couple (Sebastian Baculus, a grumpy schoolmaster, and Gretchen, a pretty young orphan he brought up), another odd couple (a quixotic countess who reads Sophocles, and her skirt-chasing husband), a baron disguised as a groom (the Countess’ brother) and a baroness travelling incognito in search for a partner (the Count’s sister). Or, seen differently: a woman who dresses up as a man who dresses up as a woman (the Baroness who is a student who is Gretchen); a tenor and a barihunk (the Baron and the Count) who compete for a blond soprano who they think is Gretchen but is in fact the Baroness in her double disguise; and a funny major-domo and a buffo bass (the schoolmaster), who is tempted by the Baron to sell him his wife for 5000 thaler.

© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien

What the Baron actually wants, however, is the false Gretchen, not the real one, who is at home and gets caught in bed with the Baroness’ maid who is disguised as a valet. The farce is topped with a side glance on the incestuous tendencies of the aristocratic classes, what with the Count being in love with his sister in disguise, and the Countess with her brother the groom. There’s more contemporary politics on display too, as the libretto, penned by Lortzing himself, is the first in opera history to use the word “capitalist” – if only by the schoolmaster who believes for a moment that he’ll be rich.

Confusion? Yes, quite a bit, especially as the above hasn’t so far explained why this opera is titled The Poacher: the schoolmaster, incited by his cheeky Gretchen to procure some game for their wedding reception, gets fired because he has shot one of the Count’s deer, and the whole story is about his efforts to change the Count’s mind. As a happy ending, it turns out that all this was much ado about nothing, because Baculus shot his own donkey.

The period production by Dietrich W. Hilsdorf and his co-producer Ralf Budde is a result of the Volksoper’s cooperation with the German houses Theater Chemnitz and Theater der Bundesstadt Bonn and it proves to be entertaining – although the piece would have profited from a few cuts here and there (instead of omitting the overture that features the all-igniting shot). Act I is set in a small classroom that gets almost overflowed with the guests of a wedding and a hunting party and the two remaining acts show different places in the Count’s palace: a terrace, a billiard room (as the libretto has it) and a spacious salon with big lattice windows and doors as well as landscape wall paintings. In this setting one does not only get to see the soloists, but also the Volksoper’s chorus and children’s chorus as well as children violinists and two real dogs who chase a man in a hare costume – all in all, everything that the Volksoper is famous for in abundance.

The singers profit from the detailed stage direction, which is particularly important in a German Singspiel (roughly the equivalent of an opéra comique), as the spoken dialogues have to be acted out properly. This performance was not given with the première cast, but that didn’t show except in the consistency of some individual vocal performances. Vocally, Andreas Daum (Baculus) was no adequate substitute for Lars Woldt, but his acting capabilities largely made up for this. “Count” Thomas Paul (whom I didn’t rate highly in Ein Walzertraum), on the other hand, surprised with a pleasing sound, albeit with one or two pitch problems. Martina Mikelić as the Countess impressed with her enormous alto voice, and the rest of the cast gave very fine performances as could be expected from their standing in the Volskoper ensemble, with a general improvement over the course of the evening. Conductor Lorenz C. Aichner cued great ensemble playing and impressively pure horns (usually not a Viennese forte) and I especially liked the earworm chorus lines. Unlike the director, who occasionally tried to find more depth than Lortzing wrote (in the finale, a sheet of paper with a political note came flying right onto my lap), he read the score as pure fun.

***11