The Komische Oper Berlin’s fruitful exhuming of lost and rare operettas from the company’s prewar past continues in Barrie Kosky’s 2015 production of Oscar Straus’ Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will (A Woman Who Knows What She Wants), a work which premiered in September 1932, just months before the Nazi seizure of power and starred Fritzi Massary – the most famous operetta star of the age – in her final role at the Metropol-Theater (the modern-day Komische Oper) before she emigrated to Austria and, eventually, on to America.
Straus’ tuneful, effervescent music sparkles and twirls its way through Alfred Grünwald’s firecracker libretto, filled with elegant and eloquent wordplay (watching these old pieces, you realize how funny German can actually be!). The “Frau” of the title isdiva Manon Cavallini, adored by all men, but especially Raoul Severac. The young Lucy is also smitten with the bachelor’s charms and begs the diva to give him up, completely unaware – of course – that Cavallini is her own mother. The original program book from 1932 described Manon as a thoroughly modern character: “No empress or historical courtesan, but a clever, intellectual woman, who knows what she wants” and both the music and text, by turns schmaltzy and ironic, shows a certain urbane sophistication and edge that seems like an appropriate synthesis of Viennese and Berliner sensibilities.
It is also essentially a chamber piece, with no dancing or big choral force required. It seems this is what inspired Kosky to stage it in radically stripped-down form (especially comparing it to his other, frequently overstuffed productions) as a two-man-show for the protean performers Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp.