Cher Public

Yes, we have no Banat

Nineteenth-century opera comes in two varieties: With Gypsies or without. With Gypsies you get fortune tellers, stolen babies, wild dances and rhythmic metallurgy—unless they are metaphorical Gypsies, as in La Bohème. In The Gypsy Baron (Der Zigeunerbaron), currently (through Sunday) enjoying a revival by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, you get all of them, plus Strauss waltzes and patriotic marches. 

Patriotism, to Strauss, meant anything in march time or an ethnic dance beat. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had eleven major nationalities in 1885 (plus Jews), and the Banat, where the operetta takes place, had at least three or four. (Since 1919, it has belonged to Romania and Serbia.)

The Gypsy Baron is set in the early eighteenth century—everyone marches off to fight in Spain during the climactic chorus that ends Act II—but little harm is done by resetting it, as MSM has done, in the mid nineteenth century. It is never clear whom the men are going off to fight nor (in Act III) where they’ve been (probably not Spain), but at the peasant-Gypsy level, who would ask?

The singing is in German (with surtitles), the dialogue in English by … somebody who didn’t care about politics. They say that Strauss often didn’t bother to read the dialogue when composing tunes for a show and was sometimes aghast when he finally saw the thing on stage. (Die Fledermaus was based on a French farce, so its story is relatively tight.

The pressing reason for the MSM update is a nifty set of hussar costumes (by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, also a dab hand at spangled Gypsy dresses and peasant embroidery), and marches, like mercenaries, will serve against anybody. But Saffi, our soprano lead, the daughter of a Turkish pasha in the original, is now said to be the lost daughter of the last Hungarian prince, which makes her several hundred years old. Are her initials E.M.?

Don’t worry about the story. A penniless aristocrat named Sándor Barinkay is betrothed to the wrong girl, Arsena, but there’s another tenor, Ottokar, and another soprano, Saffi the Gypsy, and he spends the night with Saffi and locates the family jewels when she dreams about them. So the couples get properly paired. When disputes arise, war conveniently breaks out. In Act III, the offstage emperor (Charles VI or Franz Josef) pardons and promotes everybody.

There are two comic mezzos and a very comic basso with 30,000 comical pigs (only one or two on stage), lots of marches, lots of costumes, dancing Gypsies and, every so often, a familiar waltz. Strauss always pillaged his stage works for one of the waltzes that had the world swirling.

The Gypsy Baron remains a popular waltz but the operetta itself has not been professionally staged in New York since the Met gave it (with Walter Slezak as the pig farmer, Kálmán Zsupán) in 1959, and there was a charming concert performance at Mostly Mozart some years back. Hungarian Gypsy rhythms and dances, kept to a minimum in Die Fledermaus, run full-tilt here, and the singing requires operatic skill if a lighter touch, an elegance that isn’t much taught nowadays, anywhere. There’s a recording with Nicolai Gedda doing more than justice to the title role.

As is almost always true in operettas these days, even in Vienna and Budapest, tenors were a weak spot in the opening night cast. (The show is double cast, a tribute to the riches of the MSM opera program.) American operettas often solve the problem with baritone heroes like Nelson Eddy or Robert Weede or Richard Kiley. At Manhattan School, Philippe L’Esperance, a sturdy Sándor, had some mighty pretty top notes but a lot of inaudible phrases below them until he warmed up (after a night in Saffi’s arms). Michael St. Peter sings the slight role of Ottokar with a voice of slight distinction.

Angela Joy Lamb sang Saffi with a sizable, well-grounded soprano and some good coloratura but a lot of shrill and pitchless notes, and I rather wished Barinkay had switched his affections—or Manhattan School its lead—to Yujia Chen, the charming Arsena, who was just as pretty but had a more accurate voice.

The fun arrived (as no doubt it usually does) with Kálmán Zsupán, a Slezak-stout José Maldonado, a natural comic with a light and gracious voice. He will sing all four performances, because who wastes a talent like this? And one wishes they had not cut a verse or two of the aria about his self-serving exploits on the battlefield. If he ever did get to Spain, he’d be more than a match for his contemporary, the Duke of Plaza-Toro.

Two mezzos of distinction had less to sing than one could hope for, but isn’t that almost always true with distinctive mezzos? Yunlei Xie sang Czipra, the fortuneteller with secrets, with dark, glowing phrases that would do honor to Ponchielli’s La Cieca. Lisa Barone, as a governess who is, surprise! a long- (very long) lost bride, is a stage-ready cut-up, and had fun singing of her experiences when captivated in battle—but aren’t her onomatopoeias, the “boum boum boum” of her shaky memories of a Turkish tent, intended to be sexually suggestive? The able director, Linda Brovsky, seemed to shy away from this interpretation.

The cast, you see, is enormous (it includes Willliam Huyler as a pompous bureaucrat with a past but little to sing at present, and Christian Thurston as the officer who marches off to somewhere), but Americans take on European operetta at risk: So much of the effect has to do with style and delivery, with experience, in short. We have largely forgotten this once beloved repertory, though the tunes remain irresistible, the emotions sufficiently general.

By and large, this handsome production on Donald Eastman’s magisterial sets succeeds in what it attempts, if lacking professional polish. Some of the cast, I’m told, had never been on stage before, but I’ve no idea which ones—clearly not Mr. Maldonado or Ms. Barone.

Kynan Johns led the Manhattan School Orchestra with an often ravishing brio; the raggednesses were few and will, I’m sure, evaporate as performances continue. The drums, for instance, are important to emphasize dance steps in the melodic line, but they could be a little softer and still achieve this.

Words are definitely called for by the “Gypsy” choreography of Sean McKnight, who has the boys tapping their feet (on their booted ankles, Balkan fashion) and battling with staves with enthusiasm, infectious to Thursday night’s delighted house. That, too, can only become more striking in later performances. You’ll pour out of Neidorff-Karpati Hall eager to fight the enemy—or waltz with them.