Operetta Research Center
11 February, 2016
What a way to start the Offenbach festivities: the Berlin Operetta Festival at the Komische Oper started with a late-night performance of M. Choufleuri restera chez lui le…, known in Germany as Salon Pitzelberger. The three young singers from the opera studio performed in the sets on La belle Hélène, which was transformed into an elegant salon. Actor Uwe Schönbeck guided the audience through the evening as a mad-cap Master of Ceremonies.
The audience was seated where normally the orchestra is placed. But elevated enough to practically have all the singers on your lap, so to speak. The small orchestra with piano, violin, cello, clarinet and bassoon produced dazzlingly lovely sounds in the overture – hauntingly beautiful. Maybe a bit too beautiful for the social farce that was about to follow. But I’m not complaining: it was a very unique experience to hear this music performed with such bloom and languor.
Uwe Schönbeck has the right kind of character voice to play Offenbach. And he has the perfect timing for the super-dry jokes he presents. Because the three young singers – agile and attractive as they were – couldn’t speak German dialogue well enough, Schönbeck narrated the plot, the singers swirled around him and only sang. Because they were not directly involved in the “action,” it took a while for the show to switch from beautiful music-making to what Offenbach is all about: total topsy turvey. It wasn’t until the first trio, in which Ernestine evokes the “ghost” of her lover, that matters took off. And when the famous Italian opera spoof came around you could tell that these three youngsters were in their element – delivering a knock-out performance of total zaniness. It’s a shame, really, that Bulgarian baritone Nikola Ivanov (Monsieur Choufleuri), Sheida Damghani (Ernestine) and Zoe Kissa as Stanislas-in-drag haven’t yet learned how to use words better as part of their singing. Many of the linguistic jokes – and there are quite a few of them – were lost. But the spirit was there, and proceedings got more and more bubbling as the night went along.
Seeing Stanislas sung by a sexy mezzo soprano was a delight. On none of the existing recordings can you hear this cross-dressed version, the role is always cast with a tenor on record.
Which takes a lot of the gender-bending fun out of Offenbach, a particular fun the composer and his style was famous for, back in the 1860s. The kissing scenes between Ernestine and Stanislas had a thrilling homoerotic intensity. And there was also a lot of thrill in the soaring top notes of Iranian soprano Damghani.
The once-only performance was sold out, on the first day tickets went on sale. The Komische Oper had to put in extra chairs in the back to get more interested people in. (I was one of these extra last-minute people, so: thank you, Komische Oper for letting me in too!) Since there was obviously such high demand for this piece, and since the singers plus their coaches Caren van Oijen and Bruno Bamelli are all in Berlin, it would be great if this little gem of a production could return more often. It has the potential to be a cult event, especially the Italian opera trio: one of the greatest Offenbach moments of all time.
Peter Tomek at the piano was a marvelous conductor and arranger. And I hope someone recorded this, for repeated replay. I did notice a camera behind my back …