Orff: Die Kluge; Offenbach: Mesdames de la Halle

Zürich Opera

Zurich, 2 June 2011 4 stars

Die Kluge (The Wise Maiden) was first seen and heard at the Frankfurt Opera in 1943. Offenbach’s operettas were forbidden during the Third Reich, which made this an interesting double-bill. Die Kluge is a fairy-tale opera in the form of a Singspiel, with spoken dialogue. The accompaniment consisted of two pianos and a battery of percussive instruments.

The music does have its fairy-tale moments, and also passages reminiscent of something much more forceful, with all that percussion, as in Carmina Burana, probably Orff’s most famous composition. A young cast, in this Zürich Studio production with many Brits, succeeded very well with the vocal requirements of the score.  The skeletal sets did not add too much to the fairy-tale atmosphere, but some of the colorful costumes helped. The plot has several ragtag characters, including three ruffians and a muleteer, and a king who proposes marriage on the basis of the the wise girl answering his three riddles—shades of Turandot.

Particularly impressive were two baritones, both British,  Jonathan Sells as the king and George Humphreys as the farmer, and the wise woman herself, Czech soprano Ivana Krejcirikova, who had the most plaintive aria towards the end of the opera. Also striking were an a cappella quartet for the men, and a hearty drinking song.

The Offenbach, Mesdames de la Halle, written in 1858 for the Bouffes-Parisiens just before Offenbach’s first great full-length operetta, Orphée aux Enfers, was a livelier affair. But it was saddled with a production that made it seem closer to something like Irma la Douce than to the confection seen so memorably by this writer at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1982 (as part of an Offenbach triple-bill). This mise-en-scène would have you believe that every salesgirl at the old Halles was a prostitute, kept (and enjoyed) by a dissolute policeman.

The original was not at all like this, and in fact the three principal market ladies were played en travesti, as they were in 1982. This of course made for a rollicking show, closer to La Cage aux Folles than Irma la Douce! One thing I did like about the Opera Studio version was that it retained the reverse-travesty role of the male cook, Croûte-au-Pot, as a soprano—the role was originally sung by Lise Tautin, Offenbach’s first Eurydice. In 1982, a tenor sang the part, missing a lot of the piquancy, as he/she has some of the better numbers. In Zürich, Anne-Kathrin Frank was adorable in the part.

The drum-major Raflafla, was ideally played by tenor Simon Wallfisch, yet another London-born singer. His combination of swagger and sex was very appealing, although he may have been a bit young to have been the father of Ciboulette, the fruit vendor who winds up with her lover, Croûte-au-Pot.  Ciboulette was sung nicely by Teresa Sedlmair. The various idiocies of Lapointe’s libretto were presumably modified for this German version by Josef Heinzelmann, as the original had a larger cast, and chorus.

Thomas Barthel, an American who runs the International Opera Studio in Zürich, conducted both works with considerable finesse. For the Offenbach, the orchestral agglomeration was considerably increased.

By Richard Traubner