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Light Opera Works

at Cahn Auditorium

June 24

Any music organization that survives its first decade, let alone the era of Reaganomics, deserves a hand. The Evanston-based Light Opera Works has done just that, and even more impressive, it's thriving. This past season, all of its three productions played to packed houses. So, what makes LOW tick?

An astute and dedicated management, obviously; its knowledgeable and energetic artistic director, Philip A. Kraus, a big, big plus; and a repertoire that places it somewhere between the Chicago Opera Theater and sundry local dinner theaters. To be sure, reviving operettas not authored by Gilbert and Sullivan or Lehar is risky--especially at a time when half the population under 30 has trouble placing the central European cities that provide the backdrops for many an operetta. Unimaginative, conventional stagings haven't helped: they tend to accentuate the genre's anachronistic morality and sentiments. Musically, most operettas get no respect: their deceptive, pleasing simplicity annoys even perfectly reasonable music types--some friends of mine included--who find the stuff, um, insufferably lightweight.

Yet more often than not in the past ten years, Kraus and his colleagues have come up with persuasive arguments why some operettas at least deserve another hearing. Nor is LOW's attention confined to turn-of-the-century music theater. Its Candide was a refreshingly high-spirited affair, and last winter's Lady in the Dark surely ranks among the most thoughtful treatments of Weill's American masterpiece.

A fortnight ago the company kicked off its milestone anniversary with yet another rarely performed golden oldie, The Gypsy Princess by Emmerich Kalman. A student with Bartok and Kodaly, Kalman turned to the more lucrative career of writing operettas (according to John Holland's informative program notes) after realizing that he would never be Hungary's national composer, a role he coveted. (Shades of Andrew Lloyd Webber?) But he had in abundance a knack for cabaret songs and czardas. (The czardas, as any red-blooded Magyar will tell you, is a flirtation dance that starts very slowly, then races to a wildly excited climax.)

The Gypsy Princess has tunes and czardas and waltzes aplenty, strung together around a charade of a romance. The beautiful Gypsy singer, Sylva, and the handsome (what else?) Prince Edwin are in love, unbeknownst to his parents, who have a more suitable match in mind. After a series of misunderstandings, complications, and contrivances--plus the requisite tests of fidelity--the pair finally reconciles and wins over the parents. This being a comic operetta, nobody is left out in the cold: the prince's fiancees, Stasi, bags her own man--Count Boni, Sylva's happy-go- lucky manager and confidant.

This synopsis, however, doesn't quite do justice to the book, which is a cut above average. As social commentary, The Gypsy Princess is good-natured, not bitingly sarcastic as Gilbert and Sullivan can be. It casts a fond, indulgent look at the foibles of a doomed nobility on the eve of the Great War (kin to the aristocrats who played Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game). Class differences can be overcome, as its oxymoronic title suggests. As farce, The Gypsy Princess has something of the grace and sublime irony of the Lubitsch musicals (not coincidentally, they're derived from the same continental tradition). And in juxtaposing a serious couple with a comic one, it evokes as well the formalism of Mozart's great comedies. But The Gypsy Princess is no Marriage of Figaro. Its closest model--and rival--seems to have been The Merry Widow, the signal achievement of operetta's Silver Age. Kalman amply earned the sobriquet "the Hungarian Lehar." He added to Lehar's Viennese ingredients a heapful of piquant Hungarian seasoning. Not surprisingly, The Gypsy Princess was a huge hit during its initial 1915 run in Vienna: it represented the peak of Kalman's career. Nowadays, both the operetta and the man are almost totally forgotten (this side of the Atlantic, anyway), also-rans in the race of music history.

The LOW revival succeeded admirably and zestfully in redressing that oversight. As usual in recent seasons, Kraus assembled a handsome cast, each with a pleasant voice and some acting skills. Though at the Sunday matinee I attended the singing was tentative in act one, it perked up considerably after the first intermission.

Patricia Prus was an alluring Sylva: a dark-haired, full-figured beauty with a seductive twinkle in her eyes. Her soprano was appealing, though perhaps not riveting enough for this star turn. At times, especially in the tender moments, she sang as if she just wanted to be sure of hitting the right notes: she showed no feel for the words or the irony of the situation. Hers was a more or less conventional characterization. Yet it was an encouraging debut as a prima donna for Prus, who has risen from the ranks of LOW's chorines.

Playing opposite her was Norman Engstrom as the prince torn between love and duty--the straight man, always the last to get the jokes, the kind of role that made Nelson Eddy and Allan Jones famous, sort of. I found his voice engaging and his portrayal earnest and likable, but isn't he just a bit bland and blond for this part? I did not imagine Countess Stasi as a tomboy. Ann McMann did. Her Stasi bounced in and out, looking and acting like Princess Fergie. Flirtatious, carefree, she was an overripe blithe spirit--but with a slightly undernourished voice. The part of Count Boni, bon vivant, surely belongs to Lee Strawn. A LOW debutant, he's a real find--a showstopper in the mold of company regulars Bill Wronski and John Holland. Unlike them, however, he can be a leading man: smooth as Astaire, sardonic as Noel Coward. A master of timing, he delivered the witty lines--and Boni does have most of them--pitched between the comic and the cosmic. With his supple voice and delicious diction, he elegantly conveyed the full scope of Boni's personality--if not more. And, oh yes, he can dance, too.

The secondary roles were chosen with care--another secret of LOW's success. As the prince's parents, Thomas Haddow and Jo Ann Minds offered amusing imitations: his was a bumbling Mr. Magoo, and hers a cross between Eve Arden and Hermione Gingold. Feri, Boni's pal and man-about-Budapest, was turned into a Sinatra-like city slicker by long- legged Jeff Ray. Michael Kotze's Miksa, the head waiter at the cabaret, reminded me of the present-day specimens in the fancier north-side eateries. The chorus was nearly first-rate; the women, in particular, were cute and hilarious when impersonating a gaggle of giggling Gypsy gamines.

Kraus's staging was smart and nuanced. Except for an occasional corny joke and silly rhyme, the campy sensibility that had marred some of his previous efforts was kept in check. Kraus, who has a PhD in music from Northwestern, is said to research each production extensively. And it showed--in the witty, updated translation of the libretto (credited to Nigel Douglas) and in the wonderful little touches, such as Boni's comic bit with a phone. And Kraus did not forget the poignant sadness that infiltrates even the gayest moments. The Gypsy Princess may be dated, but this production made much of its mirth and emotions accessible to today's audiences, judging by the laughter in Cahn Auditorium.

Kraus got excellent assists from all departments. The sets, designed by Kitty Luening, were imaginative and Technicolor bright. They were matched by Claudia Boddy's picturesque costumes; the Jezebel-red gown she picked for Sylva in act two was both stunning and appropriate. Above all else was the music. Guided by Peter Lipari, the orchestra made velvety, graceful, lilting sounds--the essence of operetta and the finest I've heard from LOW. Unlike many conductors, Lipari was not afraid to let the rubato linger: his rhythm was spontaneous yet sharp and precise. When the music broke into duple time, I couldn't help but tap my feet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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