Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz
Kirchesch, Schweinester and Mészár in Uncle President in Munich
© Jochen Klenk 2013
At eighty-seven years of age, Friedrich Cerha is most certainly the dean of living Austrian composers. He is, of course, known best for his completion of Alban Berg's Lulu, but that represents only a small portion of his legacy. That he was coaxed into composing a new opera — and coauthoring the libretto — must have something to do with both the persuasive art of Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz Intendant Josef E. Köpplinger and the subject of the work itself.
Ferenc Molnár's 1929 one-act comedy Egy, Ketto, Három, the ultimate comedy about a Communist/Socialist (or whatever the director wants to make him) who, through the love of a millionaire's daughter and the manipulations of a leading industrialist, is turned in the space of several hours into not only an ideal Capitalist but an ideal son-in-law, was as huge a success in Budapest of 1929 as it was in Billy Wilder's 1961 film adaptation, One, Two, Three.
Cerha and his colibrettist, Peter Wolf, have adapted the original, compressing the whirlwind plot into 100 intermissionless minutes and calling their work, Uncle President, a "musical farce in a prologue, one act and an epilogue." I attended the performance of June 13 at the Prinzregententheater. The text is full of wit and sarcasm, some of which is directed against the easy corruptibility of today's industrial-political society and much of which is pointed at the theater world. Cerha even makes fun of himself in one amusing episode. The music is more Richard Strauss than Second Viennese School. It is most reminiscent of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, with its declamation and conversation. The orchestration is never less than thoroughly professional and, if one listens carefully, full of quotes from various musical sources.
The action has been moved to Austria. Beginning and end take place on a park bench, where the President of a huge company and an aging composer, who feels himself too old to compose a new opera, are deep in conversation. The President suggests setting the story that he experienced in the past twenty-four hours. At that point, the scrim rises to reveal a modern office complex of glass and chrome, and the turmoil begins. Melody, the daughter of an American millionaire who is about to invest millions in the President's corporation, has been entrusted to the magnate President's care in order to improve her German. Melody has not only fallen in love with a bicycle-delivery man with socialist tendencies; she is also pregnant. Her parents are due to arrive this afternoon. What to do to save face and not lose the large investment?
Stage director (and intendant) Köpplinger seems totally at home in mayhem. Once again, his attention to detail and his talent for tempo translated the constant action into sheer pleasure for the public. The evening was dominated by the President of Renatus Mészár, a first-class interpreter and a baritone with a voice of heroic dimension. Holger Ohlmann looked too young to be an aging composer, but he sang the role impressively. In addition, he doubled as a marvelously corruptible Monsignore. Susanne Ellen Kirchesch was announced as indisposed, but her Melody Moneymaker, written to sound a bit like Zerbinetta, was admirably sung. The object of everyone's attention, Paul Schweinester as the bicycle messenger Josef Powolny, showed a lovely lyric-tenor voice. Character roles abound; standouts among them were baritone Derrick Ballard and tenors Juan Carlos Falcón and Ernst Dieter Suttheimer.
Conductor Marco Comin conducted the score, written for large orchestra, with verve, perfectly wedding the music to Köpplinger's vivacious production. By the way, in the epilogue, the Composer ironically decides against setting the story to music. Too late!
JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC
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