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Kálmán’s “Gypsy Princess” Sparkles in Budapest Summer Festival’s Margitsziget OpenAir Stage

A. S. Ivanoff 2019.07.17.

Right from the first notes of the Overture, we are struck by the melancholy of composer Imre Kálmán’s soul. His music evokes laughter through tears, bittersweet songs, champagne, and dancing ‘til we drop. In 1915, the year his operetta “Csárdáskirálynő” (Gypsy Princess) debuted in Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was unravelling at the seams, and the aristocracy had only a glimmer of its fate.

According to Stefan Frey’s detailed biography of Kálmán, “the plot [of Gypsy Princess] revolves around farewells.” Frey quotes the script: “Sooner or later, the bell tolls for everyone.” It’s against the backdrop of the rumblings of World War I that Kálmán and his librettists Béla Jenbach and Leo Stein created this masterpiece. What saves listeners from the war’s doom and gloom is Kálmán’s entertaining and eclectic collection of musical references, which include waltzes, gypsy music, and Hungarian folk melodies — a musical frenzy mixed with wistful woe.

The Budapest Summer Festival’s presentation of Gypsy Princess on July 12 and 13 (repeated August 9 and 10) unveiled a new staging by the National Theatre’s director, Attila Vidnyánszky. This was his debut in the operetta genre as well as for the Budapest Operetta Theatre (BOT), whose singer/actors comprised the cast. BOT has been in existence since the 1920s. They perform a wide variety of shows in their 1890s-era theatre on Nagymező street, they have toured all over the world with the Hungarian operetta repertoire for decades, and they are one of the prized names on the list of what is deemed “Hungaricum.”

Mónika Fischl (in the middle). Photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival

Gypsy Princess’ plot is reminiscent of the kinds of storylines found in many Golden Age operettas: a member of the royal line falls in love with a commoner. In this case, Viennese Prince Leopold’s son Edwin is enamoured of a cabaret singer named Sylvia, but his father has already arranged for another fianceé. The dilemma doesn’t get resolved until it goes through many twists and turns, disastrous stratagems, and a subplot involving another couple provided as comic-relief. Operetta is a genre that usually has a happy ending, with lots of champagne and waltzes. In Gypsy Princess, each couple winds up with the right person, but an additional surprise romance pops up in Act III, so it all ends in the time-honored froth of whipped cream.

Despite a few verbal anachronisms within the script, Vidnyánszy basically provided the look and feel of 1915 though costuming and set design, which featured a gigantic old-fashioned gramophone, dominating the entire stage, and which rotated throughout the performance. Its front was a megaphone that functioned as a mini-theater dotted with spotlights, and the whole structure supported a spiral staircase on which actors’ movements took place. The anterior was an turn-of-the century gazebo with large etched glass doors and windows that served as important portals in several scenes.

Photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival

Providing the show’s heightened electrical charge on July 12 was the exemplary cast. Their 3.5-hour performance of perpetual motion and music-making operated at the highest level. In the role of Sylvia was the remarkable singing actress Mónika Fischl, whose performance was nothing short of perfection. With her silvery, wide-ranged soprano, coupled with deft acting prowess as the character goes through one emotional roller-coaster after another, she ruled the stage with skill and grace.

Péter Laki, as Sylvia’s adoring fan who was initially in love with her, but later feasted his eyes on the charming Stazi (winningly played by Diána Kiss), provided a comic tour-de-force. In his comedic antics in both conversation and song, he rarely left the stage — and when he did, he only needed to get a bandage to cover the facial slap from a bullwhip accident he had just performed in one of his many hilarious demonstrations of tongue-in-cheek bravura. A superb singer-dancer-actor-comedian like Laki, in New York’s Broadway theatre world, would be a coveted and highly-rewarded star.

Mónika Fischl (in the middle). Photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival

Zsolt Vadász as the earnest but hapless Edwin, and Lajos Csuha as the oft-perplexed Prince were fine-tuned contributors in this cast. It was a pleasure to see that Vidnyánszky’s team had positioned the chorus and dancers in group scenes that made logical sense that allowed them to add more sparkle to an already gleaming production. But in rejecting the traditional whipped cream finale, Vidnyánszky’s alternative ending gave the audience another kind of food for thought. Soon after hearing the sound of bombs and seeing dust rising in the air, a collection of male homeless refugees arranged themselves on the front of the stage set, just as the finely etched glass doors of the gazebo closed in front of the actors, blocking their faces as they sang the final song. The dance music continued in the background, but no one danced. If author Frey is right, it’s probably a farewell — but another variety altogether.

Director Attila Vidnyánszky (in the middle). Photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival

The July performance audiences were graced with the presence of Yvonne Kálmán, the youngest and the only surviving offspring of Imre Kálmán (who died in 1953). She makes frequent visits to Budapest and is still actively representing and promoting her father’s works around the world. “This performance was really high caliber,” she told Hungary Today. “It’s worthy of an opera house. All the performers took their work very seriously. And Mónika Fischl just gets better and better.”

Yvonne Kálmán, daughter of Imre Kálmán. Photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival

The Director of the Summer Festival, Teodóra Bán, agrees with Ms. Kálmán: “This company [BOT] performs with a lot of heart. It’s a pleasure to be able to support their fine work in this festival.”

Upcoming Budapest Operetta Theater performances: 

August 2, 3, at 20:30
Buda Castle Courtyard

August 9, 10 at 20:00
Summer Festival’s Margitsziget Open-Air Stage

(These shows are performed in the Hungarian language, without subtitles.)

Featured photo by Vera Éder/Budapest Summer Festival