Ball im Savoy
Komische Oper Berlin
Sensational success: Manzel as Madeleine in Ball im Savoy at Berlin's Komische Oper
© Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de 2013
Energetic, over-the-top, deliriously entertaining — these are a few terms one could use to describe Barrie Kosky's first season as intendant of Berlin's Komische Oper, which drew to a close in mid-June with a new production of Paul Abraham's rarely seen operetta Ball im Savoy (seen June 12). This was the ninth and final new production of the season, as well as the fifth one that featured Kosky as director.
According to the KOB, this was the first Berlin production of Ball im Savoy since its 1932 premiere at this city's largest revue theater, the Grosses Schauspielhaus. Abraham was a Hungarian–Jewish composer who achieved worldwide fame with a string of successful operettas in the early 1930s that also included Viktoria und ihr Husar and Die Blume von Hawaii. All three works have been adapted numerous times for the screen. The earliest film version of Ball im Savoy, from 1934, starred the formidable Hungarian soprano Gitta Alpar.
The witty libretto by Abraham's frequent collaborators Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda is both madcap and elegant. Its antics, wordplays and double-entendres make it sound like a German version of Cole Porter. Although nominally set in Nice and Paris, the work's true setting is the glamorous, high-energy Berlin of the early '30s. The fabulously wealthy Marquis de Faublas and his wife, Madeleine, have just returned from a yearlong honeymoon traveling the world when the Marquis is coerced into keeping an appointment with his former lover, the Argentinian dancer Tangolita, at the annual ball at the Savoy Hotel. The Marquis enlists the aid of his old friend Mustafa Bey, the Turkish attaché in Paris, in fabricating an excuse to get away from Madeleine on the first night after their honeymoon. By coincidence, Madeleine's American friend Daisy Darlington, who writes jazz hits under the pseudonym José Pasadoble, insists that she accompany her at the Savoy as well. Suspecting foul play on the part of her husband, Madeleine attends incognito and finds the Marquis in a chambre séparée with Tangolita.
Quite predictably, scandal ensues, followed by the threat of divorce, but somehow everything is set right in the end. Abraham's fluid, full and melodically lush music often rises above the inanities of the plot. He fuses different musical idioms — waltz, foxtrot, tango, gypsy and oriental motifs (borderline racist in their application) — with both schmaltz and irony. The collaging of various styles is perhaps the score's most modern feature, since Abraham mostly avoids jarring dissonances to create a very accessible work and only makes use of jazz sparingly for added spice. American conductor Adam Benzwi, who runs the musical-theater program at the Berlin University of the Arts, excelled at bringing out the various shades and influences in the propulsive, tuneful score.
The cast was a sublime mix of Komische mainstays and special guest stars. Dagmar Manzel, a frequent guest at the house and a particularly close collaborator with Kosky (who has created two shows for her in the past, Kiss Me, Kate and The Seven Deadly Sins) was a sensational singing and dancing actress as Madeleine. Ensemble tenor Christoph Späth was in very fine form as the sneaking Marquis.
The two most memorable performances, though, were given by Helmut Baumann, a musical veteran who originated the role of drag queen Zaza in the German premiere of La Cage aux Folles,as Mustafa Bey; and German actress and singer Katharine Mehrling, who was clearly channeling Sally Bowles for her portrayal of Daisy Darlington. In the supporting roles, Polish mezzo Agnes Zwierko was the most impressive vocally in the hilarious role of the throaty Tangolita. Dennis Dobrowolski showed Chaplin-like agility in the non-singing role of Célestin Formant, a painfully nervous lawyer who becomes an unwitting accomplice in Madeleine's quest for sexual revenge. Rounding out the cast were the "Savoy Boys," Comedian Harmonists-type crooners who function as a sort of Greek chorus, suavely sung by the Lindenquintett Berlin.
Kosky's staging alternated between elegant, wacky and overstuffed. The bookending acts set in the Marquis's deco residence (sets by Klaus Grünberg) were effective for their simplicity and focus. The endless ball at the work's center, though, was so choked with frenzied dancing, high-camp costumes and circus-like stage effects that it often stagnated despite its relentless energy. A notable exception was the brilliantly comical scene of the Marquis and Madeleine, with their respective partners, in adjacent chambres séparées. Kosky is indeed a visionary, but he would do well to show a little more restraint and save his boldest and most outlandish ideas for climactic moments. Not to say that I was bored, but considering the three-hour running time (they might have done well to cut a few of the less interesting musical numbers), the production did indeed drag in places.
Kosky has argued that works like Ball are vital to the KOB mission, both connecting to the company's prewar origins as a revue theater and differentiating it from the city's other two (more traditional) houses, the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper. In addition to Ball, the season also included concert performances of Kurt Weill's Kuhhandel and Emmerich Kálmán's Bajadere. For next season, Kosky has programmed another operetta rarity, Nico Dostal's Clivia. Not only is the KOB an ideal forum for rescuing such works from obscurity; the works themselves — and the worthy productions they come packaged in — add immeasurably to the company's luster.
A. J. GOLDMANN
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