Thursday 10 January 2019

Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky‎ & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Ralph Benatsky and Robert Stolz The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl); Netta Or, Alexander Kaimbacher, Alexander Franzen, Emily Hindrichs, Paul Schweinester, Till von Orlowsky, dir: Eike Ecker; cond: Arne Willimczik; Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal II  
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
This new production of Ralph Benatsky and Robert Stolz’ bubbling operetta, The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) hit the mark at Oper Köln leaving a packed house on a high

I’ve visited Austria on many occasions and therefore know the country quite well but the trio of villages that hug the Wolfgangsee (St Wolfgang, Strobl and St Gilgen) situated in the picturesque Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria, take some beating, But of special interest to me was to the fact that I stayed at the famous White Horse Inn (Hotel Weißes Rössl) which has been in the trusted hands of the Peter family - Oliver and Gudrun Trutmann-Peter - for five generations. I recall a certain amount of excitement ran through my veins.

The hotel’s famed throughout the German-speaking world due to its association with the operetta of the same name composed by Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz during the shaky and fragile régime of the Weimar Republic, the first German government to be elected after the fall of the monarchy in the 1930s as the Nazis were edging towards power. It was Benatsky who actually penned the well-loved title number: ‘Im weißen Rößl am Wolfgangsee.’ And what a number!

Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz's White Horse Inn (Hotel Weißes Rössl) was given a new production at Oper Köln, directed by Eike Ecker and conducted by Arne Willimczik with Netta Or, Alexander Kaimbacher, Alexander Franzen, Emily Hindrichs, Paul Schweinester, and Till von Orlowsky, which we caught on 5 January 2019.

The scenario of the operetta is cheesy to the core but engagingly romantic nonetheless surrounding the goings-on of Leopold Brandmeyer, head waiter of the White Horse Inn, who’s desperately in love with the owner, a resolute young widow by the name of Josepha Vogelhuber. But she’s more interested in one of her guests, a lawyer by the name of Dr Erich Siedler who represents a client named Sülzheimer in a business dispute. Siedler, though, makes the faux pas of falling for his opponent’s daughter, Ottilie Giesecke. Her father Wilhelm, however, sees the advantage in swapping a lawsuit for an engagement by marrying Ottilie off to Sülzheimer’s son, Sigismund. The plot thickens! A comedy of errors to the nth degree each character is found chasing the wrong person with hilarious results.

However, the forerunner to the operetta came about in the last decade of the 19th century when Berlin theatre director, Oscar Blumenthal, was holidaying in Lauffen, now part of Bad Ischl, a small town close to St Wolfgang where the world-renowned operetta composer, Franz Lehár, resided up to his death in 1948 and also where Oscar Straus died.

At the inn where Blumenthal was staying, he happened to witness the head waiter’s painful wooing of his boss. Highly amused he used the story as the basis of a comedy which he co-wrote with the actor, Gustav Kadelburg. However, the deuce imaginatively relocated the action from Lauffen to the more prominent village of St Wolfgang.

The comedy came to the Berlin stage in 1897 enjoying immediate success and, by all accounts, audiences loved the comic portrayal of the ‘well-to-do’ city dwellers such as Wilhelm Giesecke, a Berlin manufacturer of ladies’ underwear, and his daughter Ottilie, who show all the characteristics of the nouveau riche.

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)

In fact, the play promoted tourism in Upper Austria especially in and around St Wolfgang and a contemporary edition of Baedeker’s travel guide praised the natural beauty of the region and described the White Horse Inn as nicely situated at the lake front next to where the steamboat can be taken for a romantic trip across the Wolfgangsee.

And one of the most innovative pieces of staging in this adorable and satisfying production, directed by Eike Ecker, witnessed the arrival of the hotel guests to the shore of the Wolfgangsee traipsing from the back of the auditorium done up to the nines struggling with various items of hand luggage admirably led by their bearded captain with a lone hand carrying the ship’s funnel - letting off steam, too. And so, too, were some of the passengers who were seen bickering with one another in true holiday spirit! It was a colourful scene - the audience lapped it up.

Oper Köln, by the way, is currently working in makeshift surroundings in the 1920s-built Staatenhaus am Rheinpark in Cologne-Deutz (across the Rhine from Cologne Cathedral) while their opera-house is under restoration, therefore Eike Ecker and his creative team put to good use the seemingly-limited space and resources available to them.

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
For instance, Darko Petrovic’s set (in situ for the entire show) comprised a mountain range covering the width of the back of the stage area with members of the orchestra (Gürzenich-Orchester Köln) sited in front of it but separated from the performers by an Edelweiss-patterned orchestra rail - what else! The actual performing area took place on a revolving stage which, overall, was en fête with Austrian balcony-style flags set off by a line of ornamented Victorian-style, wrought-iron, gas-lights with the White Horse Inn seen in all its glory overlooking the Wolfgangsee - a pretty picture, for sure!

And helping that pretty picture was the imagination and creativeness of the lighting designer, Nicol Hungsberg, who in one lovely scene turned the entire stage into a picturesque winter postcard comprising an ice-skating rink finished off with the snow-covered mountain range glistening in the moonlight. Romantic to the core!

But this production was wonderfully romantic through and through not least by the arrival of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and Hungary, a spoken role played regally by Christian Futterknecht who looked the part from head to toe while another innovative piece of staging employed a ski chair-lift whilst the entry of the tourists arrived at the start of the show by way of a cardboard cut-out charabanc with cameras at the ready.

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Overall, the show was extremely well cast with the pivotal roles of Josepha Vogelhuber (the attractive young widow and proprietor of the White Horse Inn) admirably played by Netta Or with Alexander Kaimbacher as the inn’s head waiter, Leopold Brandmeyer, who, at his lowest ebb, seem to take on the characteristics of Pierrot, the stock character of the Italian commedia-dell’arte, portrayed as a young and personable valet but unsuccessful as a lover. However, their acting ability well matched their vocal prowess especially in the duet in act I (It would be wonderful) while in the finale of act II they were joined by Paul Schweinster who as Dr Erich Siedler proved an excellent choice for the role.

But adding more than a dash of colour, fizz and style to this feel-good and thoroughly enjoyable show was down to the well-disciplined dance ensemble choreographed by Giorgio Madia who had the distinction of working with Maurice Béjart and his Ballet du XXe siècle in Brussels and was engaged by Rudolf Nureyev for his farewell world tour from 1988 to 1991. He knows every trick in the book and it showed fair and square in this production.

Comedy was everywhere, too, but none more so than the courtship on the ice between Sigismund and Klärchen (daughter of Professor Dr Hinzelmann) so well (and comically) played over-the-top by Till von Orlowsky flamboyantly sporting a wavy pink-coloured wig and Maike Raschke looking rather plain, bespectacled with bun-shaped hair. As an over-excited young girl she proved completely unsteady on the ice looking longingly (and lovingly) in the eyes of her beau to the amusement of an attentive audience.

The spoken role of Wilhelm Giesecke was over-fussily played by Alexander Franzen while his daughter Ottilie fell to Emily Hindrichs who harbours a clear and bright soprano voice whilst Vincent Lang was noticeable in the role of Der Piccolo, the apprentice waiter, who would have fitted in well in the BBC sitcom, Fawlty Towers.

The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln was in good hands with Uwe Theimer playing faultlessly a work that its members must know note for note. The audience certainly did. Overall, though, it was fine production by a fine company who in the summer of this year will be mounting a season of the works by Jacques Offenbach who was born in Cologne. Did you know?

Keep in touch with Oper Köln by visiting

The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl)
Netta Or (soprano)
Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor)
Alexander Franzen (baritone)
Emily Hindrichs (soprano)
Paul Schweinester (tenor)
Till von Orlowsky (bass)
Alexander Fedin (tenor)
Maike Raschke (soprano)
Christian Futterknecht (actor: Kaiser Franz Joseph I)
Eva Budde (soprano)
Vincent Lang (tenor)
Hoeup Choi (baritone)
Alina Wunderlin (coloratura-soprano)
Dance ensemble: Janina Clark, Julia Marie Wolobuew, Emmy Thomsen, Hannah Juliane Steenbeck, Greta Giorgi, Michael Seidel, Florijad Komino, Simone Maier, Simine Giancola, Petr Zaionchkovskiy
Arne Willimczik (conductor)
Eike Ecker (director)
Giorgio Madia (choreographer)
Darko Petrovic (set designer)
Ulrich Schulz (costume designer)
Nicol Hungsberg (lighting designer)
Tanja Fasching (dramaturgy)
Chor der Oper Köln
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

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