In the fifth consecutive annual re-creation of Hungarian composer Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán’s lesser-known works — he’s most known for his operettas “Countess Maritza” and “The Circus Princess” — Berlin’s Komische Oper prepared a dazzling iteration of “Marinka,” a show he wrote in 1945 for the American Broadway theatre. It was a musical homage to Vienna and Budapest, ostensibly set in 1889, but delightfully updated to the 20th century.
For this presentation on Dec. 18 in Berlin, a new orchestration was fashioned by Ferdinand von Seebach, and the Komische’s general director Barrie Kosky semi-staged four phenomenal singers who presented a trimmed-down, 90-minute concert version of the original, conducted by Vienna’s well-known show maestro, Koen Schoots, leading the Komische Oper Orchestra and Chorus.
Kosky announced from the stage that this was “the last of five consecutive Christmas presents to you all” of concert-style Kálmán revivals presented on two different dates in December. It may have been the fifth and final gift, but based on the raving success of these past five years, they easily serve as ticklers, whetting the appetite for more Kálmán. The composer’s exuberant oevre, especially his most famous works, just beg for a Kosky treatment, more than from any other director.
The score was a curious amalgamation of schmalzy Viennese waltzes, American jazz from the 20s, Hungarian csárdas, jaunty Two-Step tunes, and bittersweet ballads of love’s regrets. The story involved the ill-fated couple of the “Mayerling” tragedy, an actual historical account from 1889 which was the subject of a German film in 1956, and a Viennese musical in 2006. However, this script was considerably altered to include a happy ending wherein the couple waltzed off to America rather than commit double suicide, as is what actually happened.
This “Marinka” was also a curious combination of languages: the songs were sung in English and the dialogue spoken in German. This kind of bi-lingual pairing often appears at the Komische Oper, as Kosky delights in mixing up ethnic identities and references, genres, music and dance styles, and theatrical conventions; in the case of operetta, he fashions a kind of elegant, story-based vaudeville with an underlying erotic quotient.
Most impressive was the elevated skill level of all the performers: the quartet of Ruth Brauer-Kvam as Baroness Maria (Marinka), Johannes Dunz as Crownprince Rudolf von Hapsburg, Peter Bording as the royal chauffeur Josef Bratfisch, and Talya Liebermann as the Countess Landowska, are superb singing actors, particularly Bording and Brauer-Kvam who instinctively chew the scenery as they trod the boards. Although she had less to do than the other three, Liebermann’s well-bred vocalism shined in her two songs, delivered in a Hungarian accent, that portrayed a spoiled royal who, as one of her many libertine adventures, “auditioned” for the harem of the Shah.
The creators exploited a fun poke on a song title that was well-known in 1945, with “Old Man Danube” (switched to “Young Man Danube” on the reprise, ending with “it just keeps dancing along”) as a take-off on Jerome Kern’s “Old Man River” from “Showboat.” It capitalized greatly on the importance of the two major rivers as sources of romance and commerce and Kálmán’s iteration actually amounted to an outright steal of Kern’s famous melody. Another tangential title was “One Touch of Vienna” (recalling Kurt Weill’s “One Touch of Venus”). Others had clever internal rhymes that imitated Cole Porter’s way with words: “statues/flat shoes,” “Amazon/pajamas on,” and “hearty joke/artichoke.”
There was also an important modern update to the conceit of the song “Treat a Woman Like a Drum” wherein a recipe for keeping a woman at a man’s service was outlined in crude and politically incorrect terms. The Baroness herself comes to the rescue to challenge this old world attitude and Bratfisch blithely explains that it’s simply borrowed from 1889 and, of course, it’s a thing of the past. I don’t know if that conversation is from the original script by George Marion Jr. and Karl Farkas, but if it’s Kosky’s team’s inclusion, the females in the audience were breathing a big sigh of relief.
But all of the above is the exhilarating mélange of what Kálmán and his lyricists were bringing to the stage throughout his career (he died in 1953). The blend of three (or more) cultures and their musical signatures, and as suggested in this particular script — a timely reference to the spectre of immigration — provided a flagstone for the generation that followed the Golden Age of operetta into the 20th century. And that remains a shiny gemstone that deserves continuous polishing and due reverence. On that point, the one remaining member of the Kálmán family, Emmerich’s youngest offspring Yvonne, was in attendance on Dec. 18. Her presence provided a living connection to this unique genre’s legacy, giving hope that there could be another Kosky version of her father’s work in the near future.
“Marinka” repeats on Friday evening, Dec. 30. For information and tickets visit the Komische Oper website.
Photo credits; Robert-Recker.de