Operetta Research Center
15 September, 2013
I don’t know what it is about Lehar that attracts so many people. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do know: listening to his music is like overdosing on Sacher Torte, once you start feeling the gluey sugar running through your body you cannot stop and you want more and more. And since Lehar’s music is also such a fascinating political topic – remember: he was Hitler’s official favorite composer, he was married to a Jewish women, most of his working partners were Jews and his first ever Danilo, Louis Treumann, died in a concentration camp, as did the librettist of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” – the brain can stay switched on when listening to this saccharine waltz music. The unbridgeable contradiction of Nazi horror and super sweet sounds is one of the main reasons why Lehar, today, commands such attention from theater people who are into presenting “edgy” entertainment.
Well, one of these theatre people obviously is Kirstin Hasselmann, founder and artistic director of Berlin’s so called “Hauptstadt Oper.” Don’t be fooled: as grand as that sounds (“capital opera”), as small the venue in Landsberger Allee 61. Far out in the East. In a not very atmospheric one-room-theater that feels more like an evening school class room than an opera house. Let alone an operetta theater sauitable for Lehar’s high glam shows.
But that didn’t stop Hasselmann from putting on an interesting Lehar program anyway, with herself in the soprano role, and with tall-and-slender tenor Ricardo Frenzel Baudisch as her leading man. The two make an interesting pair, because she is a woman of indefinite age, and he’s a lanky junior who obviously still has to learn a lot about life. And Lehar. It’s a bit like watching Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, all those moons ago. In other words: highly appealing. The two sing their way through an eclectic mix of songs and duets, staged in front of two black walls and a white shining screen that’s used for shadow play. Add to this violinist Mai Kawalka, who can play some very lusty czardas tunes, and pianist Ralph Zedler and you have a thought-provoking evening.
The thought provoking part comes in the form of recited newspaper clippings, most notably Kurt Tucholsky’s glorious description of a silly Lehar news reel scene from the 30s. (That alone would make any visit to a Lehar program worth the effort.) There are also some short bits of Nazi correspondence on Lehar, his wife, the Führer and the “Honorary Aryan” status A.H. gave to Mrs. Lehar etc.
As for the singing: Kirstin Hasselmann is a sensual operetta diva, somewhere between a lusty soubrette, Norma Desmond and the grand dames of the genre. If you like your operetta sung in a ‘classic’ 1970s way, then here’s your chance to hear it thus, with some attractively grotesque winks at the audience that this is not intended “for real”. Hasselmann’s voice has a warm glow to it, and assured top notes. I personally would have enjoyed a bit more Norma Desmond in it all, but hey. Compared with many (many!) other Lehar offerings of late (think of Christian Thielemann’s Dresden concerts), I found Hasselmann a real winner.
Her partner Ricardo Frenzel Baudisch has not found his way to a personal operetta style, yet. He sings it with some alluring pianissimo top notes (notably at the end of “Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz”), but his whole outer appearance is more “Buffo” than romantic leading man, and when he dives into the more pseudo-serious numbers of the evening he has to sing against type.
But as I said, there is chemistry between the two. And the music is allowed to flow with all its gluey glory. Since there is no other Lehar on offer in Berlin at the moment, operetta fans visiting the German capital should definitely head out to Landsberger Allee and see Um acht beginnt die Nacht: Franz Lehar und die Silberne Ära der Operette. The program plays again on September 20, 21, December 6, 7, 20 and 27. On December 31 they guest on the island Sylt at the Akademie am Meer Klappholttal.