Opera Reviews
30 November 2023
Untitled Document

Bringing The Gypsy Princess back to life

by Steve Cohen
Kálmán: The Gypsy Princess
Concert Opera Theatre, Philadelphia
June 2013

Photo: Donato ValentinoFrom the evidence provided by this production, I'd rank Emmerich Kálmán as my favorite composer of operetta. He's not as well-remembered as the founder of the genre, Johann Strauss, but Kálmán's music is more varied and exciting. It also relates more closely to our time.

Imre Koppstein was a Hungarian Jew who went to school with Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. At age 26 he moved to German-speaking Vienna where he started using the name Emmerich Kálmán and went to work in theater.

In 1915 Kálmán wrote Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess). Outstanding among his later works were Gräfin Maritza (Countess Maritza) in 1924, Die Zirkusprinzessin (The Circus Princess) in 1926 and The Duchess of Chicago in 1928. Kálmán sought refuge in the United States in the 1930s. After the war he returned to Europe and died in Paris in 1953.

Kálmán was 57 years younger than the waltz-king Strauss and 12 years younger than Strauss's Austrian successor Franz Lehar. Kálmán's music included American influences, especially dance music in the speakeasies of Chicago. What was most distinctive was his Hungarian background and his employment of that land's folk rhythms.

His hometown was Budapest, the hub of the eastern half of the Hapsburg Empire which contained many more gypsies, Jews, Magyars and Turks than did Vienna. In addition to fast and slow waltzes, he used the czárdás, a dance in 2/4 or 4/4 time with syncopated beats that started slowly and accelerated.

Because the Hungarian language stresses first syllables, its music has a strongly-accented rhythm. Kálmán also wrote scales that used plaintive minor thirds, a musical interval using three half steps, and wide-arching melodies. We also hear cadence-like clicking of heels in his music. Last weekend this prompted rhythmic clapping by members of the audience.

Unlike his Viennese predecessors, Kálmán did not rely as much on sentimentality about life in the old Empire but, more so, on rebellion against the aristocratic system. His plots poked fun at the pomposity of the entitled class. In The Gypsy Princess we see a prince who falls in love with a commoner cabaret singer. His royal parents feel that it would be more acceptable for him to marry a divorcee than a nightclub performer, and the show's surprise denouement reveals that his own mother had been a burlesque singer and dancer known as High Kickin' Hilda.

This is operetta, so it had a happy ending with the ensemble proclaiming "Let Me Dance and Let Me Sing."

In my childhood, radio broadcasts featured Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker and others singing Kálmán ballads like "Play Gypsy, Dance Gypsy." Now that music is almost unknown. Bravo to Pantano and his Concert Operetta Theater for bringing it back for our enjoyment, and teaching the genre to young professional singers who can take it to other audiences.

Jeffrey Halili excelled as Prince Edwin, with beaming face and ringing high notes. He's been impressive in many opera roles for the Academy of Vocal Arts but never was as dashing a leading man as here. Almost equal in stage time was another tenor, John Matthew Myers, as Edwin's fun-loving best friend. His genial presence and strong voice were unexpected pleasures because I never before heard him sing. It would be a treat if we could see an opera where he shares the stage with his fiancee, the Metropolitan opera leading soprano Angela Meade.

Jennifer Holbrook brought some parody to her role as the extroverted cabaret singer and Evelyn Rossow presented a contrast as a lower-key, more mellow woman. Brian Major was impressive as the baritone lead, the Baron Feri.

All five of these principals were excellent in their roles and the supporting ensemble was fine. The costumes were glamorous and staging minimal. Richard Raub at the piano deserves kudos for training the cast with precision in the style.

Text © Steve Cohen
Photo © Donato Valentino
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