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Reviewed by:
  • Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture by Laurence Senelick
  • Gabriela Cruz (bio)
Laurence Senelick. Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 370 pages, $126.00.

Toward the end of Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture, Laurence Senelick makes an intriguing attempt to explain the marginal position that Offenbach’s oeuvre occupies in contemporary theater and imagination. In Chapter 13, “Rebirth from the Ruins,” Senelick takes the reader to Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There, he discovers Walter Felsenstein, recently arrived from his wartime refuge in Zurich, at work to re-establish opera and musical theater in the ruined city. Improbably, or ironically, Felsenstein’s first Offenbach production in Berlin was Pariser Leben, performed in the gelid Hebbel-Theater, which was operating without heating in December 1945. On this occasion, acting and music were to provide much-needed warmth by offering “a convincing and truthful expression of human feeling” (274). A few years later, Felsenstein, then director of the newly reopened Komische Oper, staged the same work, again in less-than-ideal circumstances. This time, he had a larger group of actors and singers at his disposal, but their competences and singing voices, Senelick tells us, did not exactly fit those required by the work. There were other serious problems as well: theft was endemic in the theater as elsewhere, shortages were the rule, and food was scarce in the city, making the arduous work of rehearsal punishing (276). The Pariser Leben he staged was invitingly idiosyncratic. It “recover[ed] the intimacy between audience and players that had existed in his postwar production at the Hebbel-Theater” (275), but it pushed the envelope of theatrical mimesis in unexpected ways: an Offenbach look-alike led the orchestra, and actors “resort[ed] to lip-synching to offstage or in-the-orchestra-pit vocalizations,” producing an unusual sense of shadowing and dislocation. Amid all this, the opulent life of the Second Empire took on a bygone, ghostly appearance. Offenbach’s work, this time, became an occasion to remember and lament what had been lost.

Ten years on, in 1962, in East Berlin still ravaged and under the grip of Stasi rule, Felsenstein again returned to Offenbach. This time, he turned his attention to Barbe bleue, a work seldomly performed in the city in the preceding sixty years. Felsenstein’s Ritter Blaubart was hailed as a masterpiece by the German critical establishment in the East and West, and, indeed, it became an important piece of the [End Page 323] theatrical canon at the Komische Oper for years to come. Felsenstein, for his part, wrote about his decision to stage the work with a surprisingly candid, if finally cryptic, admission: “Cruel and criminal sovereignty in Offenbach touches us because we have experienced it on our own bodies” (281). Felsenstein’s complex theatrical intervention with Barbe bleue lays bare, in true Offenbachian form—that is, precisely and absurdly—the deranged drives underpinning the criminal enterprise of the totalitarian state. The question of which experiences the work allegorizes—past or present—is beside the point.

To be sure, Offenbach’s works were only a tiny subset of the large repertory that Felsenstein tackled during his tenure at the Komische Oper. Yet, his admittedly selective foray into Offenbach and his art of musical comedy is important, not just because of the compelling spectacles it produced, but because it illustrates the enigmatic, and not a little vexing, place that Offenbach’s oeuvre occupied in postwar theaters in East and West Germany, as elsewhere. Ritter Blaubart, Pariser Leben, and Orpheus in der Unterwelt certainly merit more detailed consideration than what Senelick’s brief survey of Offenbach’s theater in postwar Berlin will allow, and yet even the few paragraphs the author dedicates to these productions have the great merit of not simply ignoring, as others have done, the precarious continuity of this unique repertory in the postwar period.

Perhaps for the sake of completeness, Senelick pairs commentary on the operettas with a discussion of Felsenstein’s production of Hoffmanns Erzählungen. This is a historiographic faux pas that unnecessarily confuses the different natures of opera...


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