Chicago has several companies devoted to classical music theater, and most of them rely on proven crowd-pleasers to bolster their box office take. Lyric Opera's upcoming season includes The Tales of Hoffmann and Show Boat as well as a laundry list of operatic standards such as The Magic Flute. The more adventurous Chicago Opera Theater will be presenting rarely seen works by Handel and Shostakovich, but also throwing in their own version of The Magic Flute. And although it was created as a forum for operetta, Evanston's Light Opera Works is turning increasingly to the Broadway repertoire. They'll offer The Secret Garden and a Rodgers & Hart revue later this year.
Then there's Chicago Folks Operetta, a little off-Loop troupe that champions the unfamiliar, the forgotten, the downright obscure. Founded in 2006 by singers Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, CFO specializes in neglected gems from the Silver Age of Viennese operetta—roughly the first two decades of the 20th century—which followed the Golden Age that produced works like Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus. Among CFO's past productions are Springtime and Cloclo by Franz Lehár and Arizona Lady by Emmerich Kálmán. This summer the company is serving up The Rose of Stambul by Leo Fall, Alfred Grünwald, and Julius Brammer.
The what by who? No doubt The Rose of Stambul is a rarity, and the names of its authors are little known outside a circle of aficionados. But Fall was one of the most prolific composers of his era, penning more than 20 operettas between 1905 and his death in 1925. Brammer and Grünwald collaborated with Kálmán and Strauss as well as Fall.
First performed in 1916 at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, The Rose of Stambul was escapist fluff for theatergoers seeking a respite from the war that would soon bring the Austro-Hungarian Empire crashing down around them. Lee and J.J. Shubert brought it to Broadway in 1922 but discarded much of Fall's music and all of the Brammer-Grünwald libretto, substituting new material by Sigmund Romberg and Harold Atteridge. Now CFO's Frantzen and dramaturg Hersh Glagov have devised a faithful new English translation of the Fall/Brammer/Grünwald original that sings quite smoothly. Clearly a labor of love, this American premiere is a significant achievement despite some disturbing deficiencies in the production.
Set just before the outbreak of World War I, the action ranges from a harem in Istanbul to a honeymoon resort in the Swiss Alps. The story is sheer clockwork contrivance. A Turkish pasha's daughter, Kondja Gul, has been promised to diplomat Achmed Bey by her politically ambitious papa. She's heartbroken because she's secretly in love with a French poet, André Lery. Kondja has never actually met Lery—their romance has been conducted by mail ever since she wrote him a fan letter. But it just so happens that "André Lery" is a nom de plume used by Achmed, whose challenge is to make Kondja fall out of love with his alter ego and in love with him. A subplot concerns harem girl Midili Hanum, and her secret boyfriend, a German businessman named Fridolin Müller who disguises himself as a woman in order to abduct Midili from the seraglio.
The melodic freshness and rhythmic buoyancy of Fall's score are the hallmarks of a first-rate musical craftsman. There are polkas, barcarolles, quadrilles, even a Parisian can-can performed in drag by Fridolin. And of course there's a string of lilting, lyrical, eminently hummable waltzes. Strauss's influence is evident, and there are also hints of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but the music is never predictable or imitative. Fall's arcing melodic style is distinctive, and a 19-piece orchestra under the baton of John Frantzen (Gerald's brother) brings out the whimsical yet elegant filigrees in the accompaniment. It's all very gemütlich, and the libretto adds a blend of flirtatious romance and farcical silliness.
Because of the challenging nature of the vocal music, the lead roles are double cast. The performance I attended featured Desirée Hassler as Kondja and Javier Bernardo as Achmed. Their singing was excellent, especially Hassler's. Company cofounder Kelly and Erich Buchholz were charming as Midili and Fridolin, and the chorus sang brightly, balancing nicely with the orchestra without any need for electronic amplification.
Ironically, the high musical quality of this nonunion effort makes the shortcomings of its stagecraft all the more glaring. The clunky blocking, uneven pacing, amateurish acting, bland choreography, and community-theater-level sets and costumes of Kathryn Kamp's production are utterly at odds with its adventurous musical intentions. I'd recommend The Rose of Stambul to operetta lovers looking for something off the beaten path. But if CFO wants to be taken seriously, it'll have to bring its theatrical values up to snuff.