No less an authority than Arnold Scoenberg once said of the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky, “I know not one composer after Wagner who could fulfill what the theater demands with better musical substance.” A revival of Zemlinsky’s 1910 musical comedy Kleider machen Leute (Clothes make the man) at the State Opera in Prague offers convincing proof that Schoenberg was not exaggerating... and that Zemlinsky’s brilliance can be a double-edged sword.

Joseph Dennis (Wenzel Strapinski) and the State Opera Chorus
© Národní divadlo | Serghei Gherciu

Based on a novella by Swiss author Gottfried Keller and streamlined for the stage by Austrian director and librettist Leo Feld, Kleider tells the story of Wenzel Strapinski, a humble tailor who is mistaken for a nobleman. Before he can clear up the confusion, the entire village of Goldach is fawning over him, feting him and celebrating when Nettchen, the daughter of the town administrator, announces their engagement. A fast-paced blend of humor, suspense and satire propels Strapinski to a raucous revelation of his true identity and a quick-witted recovery that results in an improbably happy ending.

From the opening notes, it’s clear that the centerpiece of Kleider is the score. In many post-Wagner operas, the music drives the narrative. In this one, it is the narrative, a fasten-your-seat-belt ride featuring inventive orchestration, clever use and shadings of motifs, evocative interludes and rousing dances. It also defies easy categorization, blithely flipping from dark drama one minute to a cartoon soundtrack the next. The overall effect is so bold and fresh, it sounds like the music was written last week.

Ivo Hrachovec, Pavel Švingr, Philippe Castagner, Jan Hnyk, Jan M Hájek and Joseph Dennis
© Národní divadlo | Serghei Gherciu

Which would seem to call for an equally audacious staging. Instead, Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen goes the other way, with a minimalist set, characters moving mostly in slo-mo and lots of vacant space during some of the liveliest musical moments. She excels in this milieu, spinning out much of the storyline with just a few tables and chairs. And one could make a case for a counterintuitive approach to Kleider, muting the staging to keep the music front and center. But the plodding pace robs the piece of its lighthearted spirit, and worse, any sense of comic timing. The moment that Nettchen freezes everyone on stage with the surprise announcement of her engagement highlights the many missed opportunities for a well-placed punchline that run throughout the rest of the production.

The lack of lively choreography is even more puzzling. There is at least 20 minutes of bright, bubbly Broadway-style dance music in the score, much of which was played to listless routines or a nearly empty stage. It was only in the final few minutes that Nettchen started swaying to a rhythm only she could hear, sashayed over to Strapinski and pulled him into a nifty, Fred Astaire-style duet – again, offering a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

Jana Sibera (Nettchen) and the State Opera Chorus
© Národní divadlo | Serghei Gherciu

American tenor Joseph Dennis was handicapped in the lead role, forced to play most of the first act falling-down drunk. When he finally got to his feet and had some time and space to sing, he showed a strong, dramatic voice – a bit too dramatic, perhaps, for Strapinski, who should be more anxious than anguished. National Theater soloist Jana Sibera was a charmingly coquettish Nettchen, her lustrous soprano soft and inviting. Dennis and Sibera turned in some fine duets in the second act, pledging their newfound love for each other with convincing sincerity.

Joseph Dennis (Wenzel Strapinski) and Jana Sibera (Nettchen)
© Národní divadlo | Serghei Gherciu

Lithuanian conductor Geidrė Šlekytė was a marvel in the pit, handling the kaleidoscopic score with a deft, sure touch. Her gift for creating atmosphere and vivid colors came to the fore in scenes like Strapinski sharing drinks and cigars with a quartet of village men in the first act, when she conjured an airy blend of flutes, strings and harp that perfectly mirrored the cloud of cigar smoke, a striking fusion of sight and sound. The State Opera Chorus added depth to the music with rich, sharp vocals, and a smart look to the staging with crisp domestic uniforms, an animated retinue of overeager servants.

Jan Hnyk, Sylva Čmugrová, Pavel Švingr, Adéla Abdul Khaleg and Jan M Hájek
© Národní divadlo | Serghei Gherciu

To be fair, Kleider presents some challenges that even the most capable crew would find daunting. The dance melodies demand a nearly nonstop flow of creative choreography, and the brisk tempo makes it hard to pause – for laughs, or even some of the finer plot points, which are lost in this production. In that sense, the strengths of the piece are also its weakness, a tricky balancing act that requires a lot of moving parts to fit together perfectly. One day, hopefully, someone with imagination and deep pockets will pick up Kleider and give it the expert treatment it deserves.