Americans have little idea of what a unique role institutions such as the Vienna Volksoper fill in their cities. Paris used to have the Opera and the Opera-Comique; Vienna still has both the Staatsoper and the Volksoper - two separate performing institutions with separate homes, staffs, and performance styles and with little repertoire overlap. Works were even written specifically for these companies - opera-comique for Paris, operetta for the Volksoper.
The Volksoper came to the United States for the first time two weeks ago, complete with its own ballet and orchestra. It will be in New York through April 22; Chicago (at the Auditorium Theater) through April 29; Los Angeles (Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena) May 1-6; and at the Kennedy Center in Washington May 8-20.
The Volksoper does not rely on superb voices (though many important operatic names of the past either began with the Volksoper or were stars there). Superrealistic, ultra-costly productions are not the norm. Personalities, favored performers with a distinct approach to their work, spark this company.
The repertoire runs the gamut from Mozart to Lehar to Lerner. Now, the New York State Theater is vastly larger than the Volksoper theater in Vienna, so a good deal of the intimate rapport between audience and cast was, of necessity, lost. But the flavor, the style, the sense of a company that has performed these works hundreds and hundreds of times (yet without a sense of stale routine) comes through tellingly.
In many ways, the ''Fledermaus'' I caught up with epitomizes the Volksoper. With the exception of Barbara Daniels (Rosalinda), there were no major voices in the cast. But there was a troupe of seasoned pros, oozing with charm, cracking up-to-date jokes, some in English (''Where's the beef?'' even got into the dialogue), and generally keeping the show moving at a dizzying, riotously fun clip.
It may sound strange that a seasoned, rather hammy rompfest like this one could seem so fresh and exhilarating. For one who has, over the years, seen endless numbers of those oh-so-American productions of Johann Strauss's classic that grind charmlessly along, I felt this performance was a revelation.
The linchpin of the show was the Eisenstein of Harald Serafin, a singing actor who exudes a befuddled charm, who chews up the scenery (in the very best sense of the word), and everyone on it who is not on his or her guard - in short , scene-stealing elevated to an art form. Hans Kraemmer (Frank) and Robert Granzer (Falke) knew just how to work with and around Mr. Serafin, so that all three meshed into a silly-wonderful romp.
One might think Miss Daniels, an American soprano, might have had a tough time holding her own among these veterans, but she had plenty of tricks up her various sleeves to keep things focused on Rosalinda when Rosalinda needed to be in the spotlight. And vocally she is perhaps the only world-class operatic singer the Volksoper brought along, singing with rich tone, wonderful nuance, and wry humor.
But even the other crucial roles - Andrea Zsadon as Adele and Dagmar Koller as Orlofsky - though less than well sung, were stylishly put forth. And in the pit, Caspar Richter led a performance of the sort of natural flow, brio, and understated elegance that comes only from living with music and a style. It was staged by company director Karl Donch, who in his day, was the finest Beckmesser (Wagner's ''Die Meistersinger'') around.
Mr. Donch showed up unexpectedly in the ''Merry Widow'' I attended, as Baron Zeta. He knows how to play comedy with verve and superb timing. Here again, professionalism and that Vienesse charm dominated the performance.
The production is nothing much -- three drops-and-flats sets, some splashy costumes, and good lighting. But the leads! Franz Lehar's Widow, Hanna Glawari, was performed by Mirjana Ilosch, whose sassy, beautiful, rambunctious presence was paired with a lyric soprano that takes on a sumptuous glow in the upper reaches.
Unquestionably the best production of the three was of Emmerich Kalman's ''Die Csardasfurstin'' (''Czardas Princess''). The score is sumptuous, full of magnificent melodies. The performance crackles with energy, the performers all relate to each other as characters, and the wonderful old-school sense of values - asides to the audience, formal bows after big numbers - are deftly incorporated into the staging by Robert Herzl (who also is credited with ''Widow''). The production revels in its old-fashioned authenticity.
In the secondary male lead was a young American named Jack Poppell whose is quite a discovery. He blends a modest lyric tenor voice, used with taste and musicality, with a cultivated young Fred Astaire brand of terpsichore and personality that effortlessly pours over the footlights. Unfortunately, this production travels only to Washington, but the ''Fledermaus'' and ''Widow'' give ample taste of the unique flavor of the Volksoper - an experience not to be missed.