Keeping the flame of comic opera burning is the responsibility of two theatres sharing the same name in Paris and Berlin. It is a great responsibility, and requires state and city subsidies, as aficionados of this limited genre today could hardly be expected to keep these two theatres open solely through ticket sales.
The Opéra-Comique inherits a great tradition; the building in the Place Favart is just the latest of several theatres with the same name dedicated to an art that began in early eighteenth-century Paris and became something rather different by the end of the nineteenth. On closer inspection, the distance from Philidor and Grétry to Bizet and Massenet is not perhaps as massive as it seems, but what were originally comic works had become much more serious and romantic in later years. The mainstay of the form has traditionally been spoken dialogue, and that, with lighter plots, evolved into operetta, still performed with relish in both theatres.
The Berlin Komische Oper has a similar tradition to play with, having been the prewar Metropoltheater, a house devoted to Berliner revue and operetta a century ago, with famous stars like Fritzi Massary and Richard Tauber. Under legendary director Walter Felsenstein, the postwar Komische Oper was reborn with operetta, but branched out into other operatic modes, so that today one can encounter Handel, Verdi, Smetana and operetta in repertory, much in the manner of the English National Opera.
The Opéra-Comique has an educational as well as an entertainment mission, by exposing its public to a wider range of styles under the rubric of comic opera. This season, Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict rubs shoulders with Monteverdi and Messager (Fortunio), and there are lots of one-off extras in the Soirées de Favart series. For example, allied with a production of Grétry's L'Amant Jaloux (1778) this month is a concert version of Philidor's earlier (1762) comic opera Sancho Pança—both exceedingly rare these days.
The Op-Com's Béatrice et Bénédict last month was directed by Dan Jemmett, a young Briton now resident in France who began his theatrical career as a marionettist. The conceptual idea of large Sicilian puppets enacting the Much Ado About Nothing-derived plot was one thing (the plot is set in Messina), but having actor Bob Goody as a compère, spouting Shakespeare in English, was superfluous in Berlioz's quite French distillation of the play. The singers, especially Christine Rice, Ailish Tynan, and Elodie Méchain, performed the often luscious moments -like Béatrice's aria and the following trio in Act II - with distinction and charm, and conductor Emmanuel Krivine elicited impressive period-instrument feeling from La Chambre Philharmonique. The fairly monumental sets by Dick Bird were attractive, but not the grotesque, puppet-like make-up the characters sported. (Why does this opera usually sound better in recordings that it plays?)
In Berlin, I saw the last performance this season of a new production of the 1921 Berlin operetta Der Vetter aus Dingsda, which seems to be back in favour these days in the German-speaking world — a production is also playing at the Vienna Volksoper. And why not? The 'Cousin from What's-Its-Name?' (to translate it accurately) has an amazing score by Eduard Künneke that seems a combination of 1920s revue brashness and Franz Lehár lushness, and an even more irresistible book by the revue authors Haller and 'Rideamus' that manages to seem as charming, complex, and ridiculous as a Lubitsch film.
Cordula Däuper's production was definitely postmodern, with film projections during certain numbers — some sort of Bollywood extravaganza to tie in with the Indonesian backstory — and even a leading character made up to resemble the very familiar German film comedian of the 1950s, Heinz Erhardt. Never did one have the illusion that this was an estate on the German-Dutch border in the early '20s. But the singing was quite fine, particularly from tenor Hans-Jürgen Schöpflin as the first 'stranger', and the orchestra under Patrick Lange played lustrously, and when required, fairly jazzily. The comic moments were for the most part nicely realized, with droll performances from the butler and maid who stand in for a chorus in this chamber operetta.
The climax, the 'Batavia-Fox', had the motley company performing modified South Seas dance movements to general mirth. (I should note that I have done an English version of this delightful operetta, performed in two Ohio Light Opera seasons, so it was a pleasure to see and hear the German version again.)
By Richard Traubner
Photo credits: Der Vetter aus Dingsda (credit: Wolfgang Silveri); Beatrice (Pierre Grosbois)