Jaromir Weinberger’s Frühlingstürme has been called “the last operetta of the Weimar Republic”. It premiered in 1933 in Berlin with some success before being banned by the Nazis. The background is sombre enough. We are at the HQ of a Russian Army in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Against this backdrop we see two (or perhaps three) love affairs play out. Lydia Pavlovska is a widow exiled from Petersburg because of the Grand Duke Mikhailovitch’s infatuation with her. The commanding Russian general, the elderly and “good natured” Kachalov, is in love with her. She discovers that her old flame, Japanese major Ito, is operating as a spy at Kachalov’s HQ disguised as a Chinese servant. Meanwhile the general’s daughter-from-hell Tatiana has fallen for the scheming reporter from Berlin Roderich Zirbitz, who happens to be the author of a very uncomplimentary article about her father.
So there are really two plots going on. One involves Ito’s spying and Lydia’s moves to help him while Kachalov tries not to have both of them shot and the other is a madcap affair between Tatiana and Roderich which the general is doing his best to stop. It all resolves at the peace conference where Ito and Kachalov lead their respective delegations. Lydia falls again for Ito but discovers he has married thinking she betrayed him in Manchuria. The two youngsters trick Kachalov into accepting their marriage and he finally gets Lydia to accept him.
So there is both a straightforward farce and something a little darker going on but what makes this piece so idiosyncratic is that there are lots of glitzy song and dance numbers in various styles that crop up regularly for no apparent reason.
For the production recorded at the Komische Oper in Berlin in early 2020, director Barrie Kosky worked with Norbert Biermann to create a somewhat revised version. Kosky points out that this has always been standard operetta practice and that what we get is about 85% Weinberger. Significant changes include Kachalov (otherwise a non-singing role) singing Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin (in Russian, while falling all over the stage) and a reworked finale that includes a quartet; the only time we see all four singers sing together.
Kosky’s approach is similar to other productions of his. He doesn’t aim for any kind of realism. He embraces the incongruities of the piece and runs with them. The Roderich/Tatiana scenes are played for maximum laughs and the song and dance numbers get a brash 1930s Hollywood style treatment made possible by choreographer Otto Pichler’s versatility and a quite brilliant corps of female dancers who handle a range of styles with considerable skill and a great deal of verve. The end result is a bit odd but very enjoyable; a feeling I’ve had about other Kosky productions.
Performances are really rather good. Lydia is the rising soprano star Vera-Lotte Boecker. She has a lovely voice, even if it’s not stretched much here, and she’s a fine actor. Ito is sung by Tansel Akzeybek. It’s a proper operetta tenor voice though maybe he is overshadowed a bit in the acting department. Israeli soprano Alma Sade is Tatiana. She brilliantly encapsulates every father’s nightmare of a teenage daughter. She’s loud, gawky and gauche but she has a really good voice! Dominik Köninger is a very physical foil as Roderich. He can make his face and body do some very odd things but it’s backed up by a solid baritone. Kachalov is the veteran German stage actor Stefan Kurt and he’s in a class of his own. He also manages the trick of making singing not very well very funny. The chorus has been dispensed with in this production though there’s lots of hooting and hollering from the dancers. Conductor Jordan de Souza (formerly of Tapestry Opera) embraces Kosky’s approach. He provides sympathetic accompaniment to the singers but in the big dance numbers he goes for maximum impact. There’s some very lush playing from the Komische orchestra plus skilful embracing of jazz and other influences. There’s even a scene where the orchestra plays along with pyrotechnics.
Götz Filenius directs for video and he does a fine job. Big dance numbers are hard to film but I never felt turned off by his approach. He’s backed up by a very good picture on Blu-ray but be aware that there are some rather dark scenes in this production which may not reproduce so well on DVD. The audio quality is very vivid indeed.
So, a forgotten piece which may not quite be a masterpiece but which treats the operetta form as it had developed by the 1930s in a most interesting way. Kosky and Biermann’s recreation embraces the oddity of the piece and produces a spectacle which may be a bit over the top but is very entertaining.
This review first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Opera Canada.
Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0122V