Zeller’s Der Obersteiger in Annaberg

A trip to Annaberg-Buchholz for Carl Zeller’s Der Obersteiger. The former silver mining town is in a relatively remote part of East Germany near to the Czech border. Though small, it boasts a permanent opera company whose programme features much operetta. That the medium-sized Eduard-von-Winterstein theatre was almost full testifies to operetta’s continuing popularity. Zeller’s lilting melodies – the piece contains what is perhaps his greatest hit “Sei nicht böse (Don’t be Cross)” – provide some explanation, but the appeal must lie also in the romantic content, elegant period costumes, dance sequences, a witty text and the opportunities for comic stage business arising from the standard components of disguises and mistaken identities, and prince and pauper class differences. Perhaps also, especially for the older generations, all of this is reassuringly nostalgic for a world which no longer exists.

On the other hand, as with Gilbert and Sullivan in Britain, there is clearly a risk that the traditions of operetta can weigh too heavily, rendering performances creakingly formulaic. The challenge is then to steer clear of stereotyped stagings without losing the approval of a predominantly conservative audience. Some aspects of Ingolf Huhn’s production did exactly that. The movements of the chorus were often stylised; the protagonists sometimes entered the stage from the auditorium; the costumes (designer Tilo Staudte) avoided cliché by being colourful and quirky; and there was some improvised saucy text. But the real difficulty was in making something of Der Obersteiger’s impossibly absurd plot which seems to have been put together like uncoordinated patchwork. After a reasonable attempt at coherence in the first two acts, one felt that, in Act Three, Huhn had given up in despair.

The role of the music in rejuvenating operetta should not be underestimated. It needs the freshness of new paint and, to avoid excessive predictability, a sharpness of rhythmic attack and an accentuation of phrasing is called for. Neither of these were present in the conducting of Karl Friedrich Winter which was in truth rather heavy-handed. As regards the soloists, tenor Frank Unger imbued the title role with some originality and sang energetically. As the mine owner with political pretensions, Leander de Marel chuntered his way through the buffo arias but made the most of the partially improvised dialogue. Martin Riecke was a pale, dry-voiced Prince. All the women performed creditably. As the Countess, Bettina Grothkopf deployed her rich soprano effectively; Madelaine Vogt was a pert Nelly and, when necessary, suitably short-tempered, while Bettina Corthy-Hildebrandt sparred amusingly with the Obersteiger. Their encounters were the best part of the show.

A mildly entertaining evening but – Sei nicht böse – I won’t rush to see this piece again.