Dominik Köninger was not to be envied. Already during the overture to Johann Strauss’ “Gypsy Baron” he had to loll in a bad mood on the stage, punch air holes with the saber, pour strong alcohol into himself: outrated actionism, to which a flood of muddy verbal juries against the “gypsy pack” is added He, Count Homonay, ruined his good old days, from which only the smart hussar uniform, schnapps and listless gobbles are left.
It doesn’t get any better with him the whole evening, and you think you have to look at the actor with a leaden displeasure, a good hundred more minutes – that’s how long the non-stop, therefore noticeably reduced performance lasts – as a narrow-minded snooze. But he is not allowed to go down (in the operetta libretto rather a peripheral figure who has been pulled together with another Austro-Hungarian official) from the stage of the Komische Oper, but has to argue over and over: because he is needed as an incarnation of all that reactionary Unflats, on which the lasting disgust of Tobias Kratzer’s production and the audience should gather.
Kratzer’s hope might be that, with all of the play’s alleged questionable issues concentrated in a scapegoat bogeyman of political incorrectness, the rest of the plot could be told more easily. It didn’t work: first, because reactionaries are much more fun when they show at least a remnant of intelligence and not just embody dull resentment. Secondly, and above all, because such a desperate and shitty “Yuck” know-it-all – condensed in the description of the play’s title to “Gypsy” baron with inland quotes – lay like powdery mildew over the whole evening despite the attempted exorcism.
The pandemic certainly did its bit to keep this so much anticipated first Berlin opera premiere on a modest simmering flame after the forced break: the choirs had to be passed, the orchestra was moved to the backstage, from where it is well coordinated and with Stefan Soltesz rhythmic elasticity, but also dynamic and coloristically a bit narrow-chested. And certainly the director – in Rainer Sellmaier’s low-mood setting, shortened to a few metaphors – ensured that the processes were nimble. But the fact that he is one of the most original minds in the current scene was only hinted at this time: for example, when he reinterprets the marriage couplet in the last act into a kind of war widow consolation, with heavy smoke.
But that was the greatest incorrectness of a production that otherwise seems to apologize for the piece (and thus also for itself, so to speak) and thus also the vital glow of Strauss’ music and plot – as the anarchist-minded artist Barinkay also did the equally anarchistic emotionality of the young Saffi against all narrow-mindedness and conventionality comes together to a (perhaps) good end – the oxygen took away. Individually, at least, both actors withstood the tendency towards grayness, although Mirka Wagner all too often clanked into something almost heroic. With good will one could listen to this very unique vowel design as an expression of wildly untamed state of mind. Thomas Blondelle, on the other hand, brought a cheeky, fresh, otherwise largely lacking lightness onto the stage, visually as a casual bohemian (which brings us back to the bad Z-word via French; Kratzer may have deliberately approached this semantic-typological analogy), vocally with a familiar one Parlando like blooming vowel lines including some unnecessary sentimental sobs. The rest of the ensemble would most likely be met by the finding that one would rather encounter in medicine: inconspicuous.
But a desperate staging that, instead of sticking to the spirit of the original, first wants to show how bad racist prejudice, pig slaughter (with Zsupan’s video-recorded performance song, puddles of blood often have to be washed away) and war slaughter can be – free according to the well-known Luther sentence – no happy singing escaped either. Well, it is like this: The 1880s, in which Strauss wrote his play, had their specific clichés and resentments; today we have our own who are not necessarily more gratifying. An intelligent staging can succeed in making the friction points of then and current sensitivities within us productive. But to use the finger gesture of today’s know-it-all to exaggerate the ethnic decadence of the time towards the Roma and Sinti, in which, by no means single-layered, arrogance, fascination and kitschy desire to escape from an increasingly uncomfortable modern age and generated hundreds of relevant works in all possible genres, is cheap. If you can’t take a piece seriously, as happened here, you shouldn’t.