Benatzky, Axel an der Himmelstür

The Volksoper last month revived Ralph Benatzky‘s 1936 hit Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Door) with a new production (and the first ever production at the Volksoper).  Although I did not know the work, it had great reviews, and of course I find I can count on Benatzky for a lot of Viennese fun.  So off I went, and tonight was not only no exception, but indeed exceeded my expectations.

This is a period piece, a parody of Hollywood set as a Viennese operetta.  The whimsical staging, by Peter Lund (a German!  A German opera director who actually understands staging!) cleverly set the entire evening in black and white (costumes and set were all grey-toned, and the cast wore whiteface and white gloves (and body gloves) to cover skin; wigs were also black and white.  A movie screen often formed the back wall of the stage and was used to project images, movie clips, and sometimes complete cartoon follies connected directly to the scene (sometimes with the singers themselves morphing into cartoon form on the screen).

Lest the screen become a crutch, a joke that got old, it actually was not there for about half the time, making the staging balanced.  The cast hammed up their roles on cue, as they should have, also always consistent with the drive of the plot.  Indeed, Lund’s sense of drama drove the plot rather than being driven.  The Viennese operetta references provoked loud laughs from the audience, but everyone seemed ready to laugh in general, not least the cast.

My only quibble with the entire evening was the decision to mike the cast.  In 1936 they would not have been miked, and the movies being parodied were mostly silent films, so this decision could not have been to try to recapture some authenticity.  I’m not sure why it was necessary, unless it simply allowed the cast to pay more attention to their antics on stage without having to worry about projecting.

The cast was uniformly good, with Andreas Bieber and Julia Koci in the lead male and female roles (gossip reporter Axel Swift and Hollywood leading star Gloria Mills, respectively), well supported by Juliette Khalil (as Jessie Leyland, Mills’ secretary and Swift’s girlfriend a the start of the opera), Peter Lesiak (as Theodor Herlinger, a Viennese barber working as a Hollywood makeup artist, Swift’s roommate, and Leyland’s fiance at the end of the opera), and Kurt Schreibmayer (as Cecil McScott, Hollywood’s biggest film producer).  A chorus of others performed an assortment of roles each, the duplication adding to the period feel, almost 1930s operetta as caberet (something Benatzky understood as well).  Conductor Lorenz C. Aichner kept the orchestra light and spritely in the pit.

Absolutely the most fun I’ve had at a performance so far this year.  I’d go again next week if I had the chance (I don’t).

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