Art frequently imitates life; but how often does it happen the other way round? Extraordinarily, some of the writers and actors, including the leading lady in the original production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel at Heaven’s Gate, in many ways became in their own lives the characters they played on stage. Zarah Leander in the role of Hollywood diva, Gloria Mills, caused such a sensation at the operetta’s premiere in Vienna in 1936 that she went on to become a film star in her own right; Benatzky left Austria courtesy of a contract from MGM ahead of the outbreak of the WW II; the squabbling producers in the fiction of the operetta are themselves Viennese exiles; an element of self-parody that he no doubt reflected upon with a smile once he had arrived in America himself. Axel is a reporter desperate to secure an interview with Mills that will make or break his career, but who finds that all his efforts are thwarted by both the actress and the shenanigans of the studio moguls. Showing opera stars Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Andreas Bieber as Axel amongst others with outstanding sounds from the Volksoper Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lorenz C. Aichner, in combination with its special black-and-white visual design, this operetta is an exceptional music experience. It's much more than a period piece and well worth discovering as it makes its return to Vienna; indeed it is a work that offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had it not been for the war; one that might have seen Viennese operetta continue to prosper alongside the still young medium of cinema.
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