Die Lustigen Nibelungen by Oscar Straus in Karlsruhe

Oscar Straus is best known in the Anglophone world for his operetta The Chocolate Soldier, based on G.B. Shaw’s Arms and the Man; less familiar is his earlier piece, Die lustigen Nibelungen. Strictly speaking this is a parody of the Nibelungenlied, rather than of Wagner’s Ring, but the latter is never far from one’s mind as one observes Gunther’s trepidation at having to confront and take to bed the redoubtable Brunhild, Kriemhild (alias Gutrune) making eyes at the blonde Siegfried, or Hagen plotting the hero’s death to gain the pot of gold which he has deposited with a Rhineland bank. And Straus reinforces the connection with quotations from Wagner’s score. Indeed, for me, the most striking feature of the work is the composer’s adroitness in setting the tone for a particular scene with “serious” musical substance, only to deflate it with typical operetta-like frivolity. It is as though Wagner’s characters have been meeting up with Straus’s near namesake in a waltz by the Danube.

On one level, the piece is an enjoyable romp; on another, it is taking a swipe at Teutonic pomposity and militarism. Not surprising then that it was banned by the Nazis (and in any event Straus was Jewish). Although some features of the production recently mounted at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe reflected the period of the work’s composition, pre-First World War Wilhelmine Germany, the director Johannes Pölzgutter held back from too overt a political interpretation. Instead, he concentrated on humorous demythologizing, ridiculing any notions of heroism, valour and love. Aided by the multi-period settings of Nikolaus Webern and the deliberately vulgar costumes of Janina Ammon, he kept his audience entertained for the best part of three hours, quite an achievement.

The cast participated in the frolics with gusto. This was a case where working as an ensemble was more important than individual performances. Nevertheless, I would single out for mention Cameron Becker’s dapper and elegantly sung Siegfried which, together with Christina Niessen’s strapping no-nonsense Brunhild and Ina Schlingensiepen’s lyrical, fawning Kriemhild, gave considerable pleasure. If the evening had a real “hero” is was conductor Dominic Limburg. He made one listen to those original aspects of the score, mainly in linking passages, in which the composer slides across different musical styles; and that without any condescension in the interpretation. As he says in his programme note, the key to humour in operetta is to take seriously what is not serious. Exactly!