Picture Credit: Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien

Goodnight Vienna

A new Austrian musical taps dark material to produce a brilliant, unsettling and darkly funny exploration of the Anschluss

Artillery Row On Opera

Who doesn’t love a backstage musical? – think of Kiss Me, Kate! or 42nd Street… Now throw in a load of Nazis, and bingo: showbiz heaven. This winning combo is currently being rigorously stress-tested at the Vienna Volksoper, in a piece that combines the alarms of Cabaret with the chilly frisson of a true chronicle of events 85 years ago in the very theatre where you’re sitting. 

Many of the Volksoper’s artistic management, orchestra and star singers were Jews

Let us forget the World follows the final rehearsals for Jara Beneš’s frothy 1938 operetta Gruß und Kuss aus der Wachau (a jaunty romantic comedy set in Linz and the lush Danube playground of the Wachau), coinciding with the ever grimmer events leading up to the Anschluss – and beyond. Austria, of course, is generally supposed to have dealt with its Nazi past somewhat evasively (not that making history palatable is notably rare anywhere else) but this show pulls no punches, and provides a rather less cosy picture than The Sound of Music of the Viennese enthusiasm for getting it on with the nightmarish brethren from up north, on the streets and inside the opera house itself. Among other things, it is a very black comedy, but there are few laughs among a perhaps slightly rattled audience.

Operetta always had a strong Jewish presence, though its status as Hitler’s favourite pastime gave it an edgy life throughout the Third Reich (his favourite being The Merry Widow, by Beneš’s contemporary Franz Lehár). Many of the Volksoper’s artistic management, orchestra and star singers were Jews, and it is their doom that we follow through Theu Boerman’s artful drama, alternating scenes of the reconstructed operetta alongside the growing trauma inside the theatre. As the directorial team gathers on stage pre-rehearsal (in February 1938), bickering about Chancellor Schuschnigg’s attempts to preserve Austrian independence, radio reports of his visit to Hitler at the Berghof are soundtracked by Arnold Schoenberg’s modernistically Romantic Chamber Symphony, a juxtaposition that becomes one of the show’s strongest dramatic suits. 

Jitters soon invade the rehearsals: conductor Kurt Herbert Adler drily notes the shrinking orchestra, as fiddlers and oboists escape to friendlier climes, and the replacement goys just ain’t got that swing. Soon enough, various chorus members starting turning up to work in khaki shirts and armbands, leading to the first diverting “Nazis doing a song-and-dance routine” in the tobacco-packing factory where Beneš’s operetta is set.

The premise of Gruß und Kuss has three bored tobacco-packing sisters at the Linz depot slipping billets doux into selected packs, inviting the lucky chaps who find them to trysts at the upcoming Spring Party at the Gasthaus Glöckerl in the scenic Wachau. Franzi’s after a sportsman: they all smoke English pipes, so her note goes into a pouch of tobacco; for Anni it’s a government official and a pack of cheap cigars, while Resi, who rather fancies an artistic type, chooses some hip cigs. Complicating matters, the girls’ widower father is also on the lookout, and a roving American millionairess in a Cadillac is set on buying a local castle and marrying the heir, whoever he may be. This all jog-trots along very much in a Merry Widow kind of way, with waltzes, tangos and polkas, duets and dance routines, in front of a series of vivid chocolate-box backdrops; in the end there will be five weddings, though naturally not in the expected configurations. Actually it’s a perfectly sweet and viable piece, and its reconstruction and rescoring by the young Israeli conductor Keren Kagarlitsky from a fortuitously-unearthed piano score is a triumph.

A jangling nightmare that rather brilliantly encapsulates the darkening hellscape

And it provides a perfect, frivolous counterpoint to the developing horror. As the idealistic director of Gruß und Kuss, Kurt Hesky, says: “If there’s tragedy outside, we must have comedy here”. As one gallivanting operetta scene ends, there are hard cuts to radio broadcasts, newsreels of vast crowds baying for the Nazis, and an ingenious montage of the home lives of the people we’ve seen on stage: the old Yiddish-speaking prompter praying before his menorah, the conflicted conductor swapping his for a crucifix, the Nazi chorus-guy daubing a swastika over a big map of Austria… Footage of the delirious crowds is underscored with the “degenerate music” of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in an exceptionally eloquent and jolting layering.

There’s no redemption. The first half culminates in a joyous ensemble, the entire operetta cast dancing a Ländler at the Glöckerl – followed by Hitler’s speech in Vienna’s Heldenplatz of March 15th (before hundreds of thousands of adoring Austrians) triumphantly subsuming his homeland into the new Reich. In part two, just three days later, the ethnic cleansing begins, while the “the show must go on” imperative is perverted in grimly comic ways by the new management, and as the strain inevitably spills onto the stage, the singers breaking down as they perform the jovial “The world blooms like a garden….”. Meanwhile we see the desperate fates of the company: the star, Viktor Flemming, stopped at the Luxembourg border and sent to Theresienstadt (and later Auschwitz), author Hugo Wiener failing to get Colombian visas for his sister and mother, librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda beaten up and dragged off. Some escape, but all you remember is the imprisoned Löhner-Beda singing his Buchenwald Song to an out of tune piano, and Flemming, in striped pyjamas, miming along to the action as his understudy, the opportunist Horst Jodl, takes over his role opposite the blonde starlet Hulda Gerin. That too doesn’t last long: soon enough she too is outed as a covert Jew and carted off. The horror is underscored by Keren Kagarlitsky’s own music, mixing up Beneš’s dancing score and neurotic modernism into a jangling nightmare that rather brilliantly encapsulates the darkening hellscape.

There’s no glitz or theatrical slickness about any of this: just an opera company portraying its not-so-long-ago predecessor troupe going through the mechanics of getting the show on, and getting murdered. Cast largely from Volksoper regulars, some of whom are better singers than actors and vice versa, it has engaging rough edges that make the human disasters displayed even more pathetic and immediate. It’s unbearably compelling. And for the price of a couple of tickets to the Playhouse’s over-hyped Cabaret, or pretty much anything else in the unpleasant West End, you could have a nice weekend in Vienna and catch this altogether more worthwhile and original show.

Until January 25th


Photos © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien

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