The Gypsy Princess
by Imre Kálmán, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
December 28, 2011-January 8, 2012

For its New Year’s show, Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting its third production (not its first as I mistakenly stated in my December column) of Imre Kálmán’s most popular operetta, The Gypsy Princess (or as it was known at its 1915 premiere in Vienna, Die Csárdásfürstin)..  It has one great tune after the next, with no lack of that typical Hungarian dance, the csárdás, and a plot that moves forward less because of artifice than because of the interplay of complex human emotions.  The current TOT production has much to recommend it, particularly the stunning performance of Lara Ciekiewicz in the title role, but when I saw the December 30th presentation, halfway between the premiere and the big New Year’s Eve gala, the show still seemed a bit rough around the edges.

The story uses certain clichés of Viennese operetta plotting--a comic couple balancing a serious couple and difference in class as a bar to marriage--but librettists Leo Stein and Béla Jenbach have found a way to emphasize the human side of the conflicts so that characters and the community on stage seem much more real than is sometimes the case in operetta.  For one thing, the title character Sylvia Varescu (Ciekiewicz) is a cabaret singer herself.  Prince Edwin (Keith Klassen) is in love with her, but she doubts whether he has the courage to stand up to his parents’ disapproval of his marrying not just a commoner but, even worse, a stage artist.  Meanwhile, her manager Count Bonifazius or “Boni” (Ian Simpson) is trying to get Sylvia started on a tour of America.  Edwin doesn’t want her to leave so what can he do to stop her but propose?  Boni, who has never taken Edwin’s passion seriously, doesn’t want to cancel the tour and so produces an announcement Edwin’s parents have prematurely had printed announcing his engagement to their choice for his bride, Countess Stasi (Elizabeth Beeler).  The mood for everyone except Boni gets very dark before events work themselves out.

Ciekiewicz has a clear, strong voice and a delightfully pert personality ideal for Sylvia.  She also can dance.  This must be the first time I’ve ever seen a soprano hit her high note while doing the splits!  She and Klassen’s Edwin have a chemistry on stage that makes the frequent tiffs and reconciliations of these two highly strung individuals seem quite natural.  Klassen’s tenor has darkened over the years in a way that has allowed him an even greater range of expression.  This plus the rapport between the two makes the slow minor key waltz “Where Are They Now?” an unexpected highlight of the second act.

As the traditional parallel comic couple, Boni and Stasi are not typical at all.  Stasi, in a surprising notion for 1915, proposes an open marriage to Edwin as the solution to their problem in the “Swallow Duet”.  Beeler’s scintillating presence lights up the whole second act.  She gives Stasi a fascinating personality, a seeming outward nonchalance hiding deeper feelings underneath that makes you pay special attention to her every word.

As Boni, Simpson simply cannot match or the other leads.  Though I have enjoyed other performances of his, his acting style is completely different from that of the others.  He adopts the consciously artificial line delivery one often hears in musicals rather than the naturalistic style the others use here.  Although he played Boni the last time the TOT staged Die Csárdásfürstin, he plays Boni as a stereotypical comic figure rather than the complex one the librettists have created.  While he may be the main source of humour in the operetta, his motivation for ruining Edwin’s proposal to Sylvia are completely selfish.  I’d like to see a bit more chagrin in him when he recognizes the effect of what he’s done.  I’d also like to see some kind of change in him when changes from the devil-may-care rake of Act 1 who does not believe in love to a man hopelessly enslaved by it in Act 2.

In secondary roles, Stefan Fehr is excellent vocally and dramatically as Baron Ferencz or “Feri”, friend to Edwin and Boni.  Mark Petacchi, though much too young for the role, gives a solid performance as Edwin’s father Prince Leopold.  In contrast, Eugenia Dermentzis as Edwin’s mother Princess Anhilte indulges in a bit too much posturing and should give some hint of the hypocrisy of her opposing her son’s marriage to Sylvia.

As usual director and designer Guillermo Silva-Marin has managed with carefully selection of props, furniture and patterned lighting gobos to conjure up the exciting backstage of a theatre for Acts 1 and 3 and the contrasting formal world of Edwin’s parents in Act 2.  Due to an evident enthusiasm for the music, conductor Derek bate uncharacteristically allowed the TOT Orchestra to play at too high a volume in the Act 1 so that most of the words went missing.  By Act 2, however, the balance had been corrected and the words were clear.  The choral singing was lovely throughout.

TOT has not staged Die Csárdásfürstin since 1997 so fans of Viennese operetta in general, and of Kálmán in particular, should not hesitate in seeing the show, especially with such a delightful singer as Ciekiewicz as Sylvia. The show is so full of good tunes that you’re certain leave with waltzes, galops or csárdások still dancing in your ears.

©Christopher Hoile



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