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Emmerich KÁLMÁN (1882-1953)
Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago)- Operetta in Two Acts (1928)
Libretto by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, revised by Dominik Wilgenbus and Stefan Frey.
Peter Matic (King Pánkraz); Mehrzad Montazeri (Prince Boris); Norine Burgess (Miss Mary Lloyd); Renée Schüttengruber (Princess Rosemarie); Wolfgang Gratschmaier (Bondy); Josef Luftensteiner (Finance Minister); Sándor Németh (Minister of State)
Chorus, Orchestra and Ballet of the Volksoper Wien/Michael Tomaschek
Rudolf Berger (Director)
Dominik Wilgenbus (Producer)
Marcus Tesch (Choreographer)
Co production of Volksoper Wien and Capriccio Music.
Recorded live, Vienna, 2005
DVD-all regions
CAPRICCIO 93509 [145:00]
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This is operetta at its finest: witty, intelligent and produced with breathtaking panache.

Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán, a fellow student of Bartók and Kodály integrated the great Viennese operetta tradition with Hungarian music and added a thoroughly modern satirical edge. Die Herzogin von Chicago also draws on the political cabaret that was a feature of radical Vienna, Berlin and Munich at the time. Moreover, it directly addresses the impact of America, of jazz and social revolution.

This production, a runaway success in Vienna, is wonderful because it doesnít merely revive the original but updates it in the true spirit in which it was written Ė as a riotous commentary on current affairs. The original lasted no less than five hours, but with judicious editing it has become very swift-paced and concise. The editors, Dominik Wilgenbus and Stefan Frey were even able to add a scene in which the two court officials talk about political "expediency", an entirely appropriate skit which would have been banned in Kálmánís time.

Miss Mary Lloyd, makes a bet with her fawning circle of girlfriends, the "Eccentric Young Ladies Club", that she can buy anything in the world, because she is so fabulously wealthy. Cue for an extravaganza of gorgeous 1920s flapper costumes, jazz and the Charleston.

Many of the dancers are professionals from the Volksoper ballet and their professionalism shows. Throughout the operetta, the dance scenes, which had to be re-choreographed, are spectacular. Miss Lloyd is played by Norine Burgess, a "real", healthy-looking American girl, full of what they used to call in those days, "vim and vigour". She is a masterly actress and dancer as well as an excellent singer, and her German is close to faultless. Indeed, she is so perfect in the role that it is almost impossible too imagine a production without her: she is charismatic, and brings depth and sensitivity to what could be an unsympathetic role. Her enthusiasm seems to light up the stage.

There are hilarious parodies which you have to be quick to catch. Beethovenís Fifth is played as a foxtrot, and danced to by two bald women. Thereís a takeoff of Ernst Krenekís contemporary operetta Johnny Spielt Auf which had been the sensation of Vienna in 1926 Ė Kálmán steals Krenekís central image of a black man with a golden saxophone! Krenekís operetta, incidentally, was also revived in Vienna in 2003, so there are in-jokes within in-jokes.

Cut to Sylvania, a tiny kingdom somewhere vaguely Hungarian. "Cut" is the right word because one of the sub-texts of this operetta is the influence of Hollywood and the movies. Miss Maryís friend and advisor is Bondy, a film director, who sees life as an unfolding movie. Reality and film blur in his mind, and his comments set a mise-en-scène where real life blends with fantasy. If the plot seems familiar it is after all, the stuff of many movies Ė The Student Prince, The Prince and the Showgirl ... Anyway, back to Sylvania, and Prince Sándor Boris and his Ministers are trying to keep the cheering natives happy while the King is off to Paris. Then, as now, thereís nothing like a Royal Wedding to please the locals. They even have "Prince" dolls! So the Prince, played by the dashing Mehrzad Montazeri, makes a pact with his promised bride, Princess Rosemarie von Morienen, Renée Schüttengruber. Love itís not, but illusion.

Miss Mary arrives in Sylvania where she meets what she thinks is the Prince while the real prince is pretending to be an aide-de-camp. She, of course, being smart, prefers the aide. Now thereís a chance for the Sylvanians to do their thing, a parody of a Viennese waltz to the tune of a gypsy violin, singing about Schubert and Strauss, who "shall return one day". The whole nightclub joins in and the stage revolves around in a whirl, like a waltz.

Despite the whimsy, there is serious thought behind this plot. America was showing the Old World a completely different way of living, much more shocking to Europeans then than we realize, after eighty years of familiarity through TV, mass media and cheap travel. That was still the age when European peasants emigrated, never to return. This operetta makes a strong point that, for all their exoticism, Americans are at heart, dislocated Europeans. Bondy reveals that his grandfather was a Jewish nobody from some tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. How shocked the old man would be to see his grandson hobnobbing with Sylvanian families! Bondy arranges the sale of the Royal Palace with the Finance Minister and the Minister of State. These two, played with hilarious mock formality and sleaze by Josef Luftensteiner and Sándor Németh, have the most savagely satirical things to say about "government". The Prince is talked into selling his palace for the benefit of the people. And so Miss Mary moves in and redecorates the "crumbling ruin" in the latest style but keeping the throne because itís comfortable.

To cut a long story short, because weíve all seen this kind of plot before, Bondy and the Princeís promised bride fall in love and, despite themselves, Miss Mary and the "aide" do so too, warily. This is depicted in a brilliant cartoon sequence which must come over even better on film than on stage. The Prince and Mary dissolve into a cartoon cowboy and an Indian Princess, called Morgenrot, and cruise along in a canoe in the moonlight Ė modern eyes might see references to Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, especially as Bondy is schmoozing Princess Rosemarie! Itís also a great excuse for more wonderful "Indian" dancing that gets progressively more bizarre, because as we know real Native American culture was already being parodied in Hollywood. It makes a surprisingly powerful point about cultural imperialism and what might face Europe if Europeans didnít hold their own. As one of the directors said, "itís still relevant".

Then the King comes back, with two Parisian floozies and tries to put the make on Miss Mary who isnít falling for that Kuss die Hande nonsense. It is hard to describe just how rich and rewarding the jokes are from now on, parodying French operetta and German, wordplays and wit, with references to Hungarian and Viennese culture, modernity, current events (like monkey glands and Viagra) and so on. The subtitles are hopeless but much of this is beyond translation. Nonetheless, if your German isnít fluent, you can still catch the humorous vivacity. Suffice to say that thereís a happy ending when everyone ends up singing Czárdás, Waltzes and Charlestons and lives happily ever after, we hope ...

This is a fabulously beautiful production, a feast for the eyes and senses. But it stands out because it brims with enthusiasm, wit and joie de vivre. Itís not "opera archaeology" by any means, but operetta for our times.

Anne Ozorio

see alsoe review by Ian Lace


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