|Maestro Kynan Johns and cast of Der Zigeunerbaron at Manhattan School of Music|
There is still time to get tickets to today’s matinee performance of Johann Strauss, Jr’s Der Zigeunerbaron, otherwise known as The Gypsy Baron. To miss it would be a terrible shame. For some reason we have had a succession of operettas on our “dance card” lately and, the more we see and hear, the more we love this largely neglected art form. In operetta we find gloriously tuneful music, amusing situations, colorful characters, and ultimately the satisfaction that can only be felt after a couple hours of smiling.
We do not have enough superlatives to describe this weekend’s production of Der Zigeunerbaron by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. There wasn’t a single mediocre voice onstage; every singer performed his/her role with fine voice, excellent dramatic instincts, and the kind of gusto that comes only from having fun. It would be a toss-up between us and them as far as which group was having more fun. We can only say that we had a grin from ear to ear for over two hours and are still smiling
Johann Strauss, Jr.'s music for this 1885 work has enough melodies for the next ten operettas and The Manhattan School of Music Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Kynan Johns, did complete justice to the wonderful orchestration of these melodies and to the plethora of rhythms found in the Hungarian dances. The overture alone was worth ten times the price of a ticket. What an abundance of themes, both lyrical and energetic, not to mention the waltzes that made us want to get up and dance.
The story is charming but has a serious aspect in that it involves the maltreatment of gypsies by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which makes it relevant today. The hero Sandor Barinkay (the terrific tenor Philippe L'Esperance) is the son of a deceased land-owning liberal who has spent his youth as an adventurer and has just returned to find his father's land occupied by a swamp, a ruined castle, a pig farmer (the hilarious Jose Maldonado), and a gypsy encampment.
The gypsy woman Czipra (marvelous mezzo-soprano Yunlei Xie) has a beautiful daughter Saffi (winning soprano Angela Joy Lamb) who has a crush on Sandor but he is contracted to marry Arsena (vibrant coloratura Yujia Chen) the also beautiful daughter of the former swineherd who has become the Prince of Pigs, a man who is indeed larger than life.
But Arsena rejects Sandor out of love for Ottokar (fine tenor Michael St. Peter) who is the son of her governess Mirabelle (substantial mezzo Lisa Barone) who discovers her long lost husband Count Carnero (baritone William Huyler, who created a marvelously pompous character--Deputy Chairman of the Privy Commission for Morality) after 25 years.
It's unusual for the guy to get the girl in Act I, but of course there are complications--buried treasure, a war with Serbia, a violation of the laws of morality, etc, What would opera be without such complications!
As the recruiting officer of the Hussars Count Homonay, baritone Christian Thurston sang with fine tone and style and was the deus ex machina that restores order.
Bass-baritone Andrew Henry made a virile Pali, leader of the gypsies.
Chorus Master Miriam Charney made sure that the chorus was as high in quality as the principals. Don't miss the send-up of Il Trovatore's "Anvil Chorus "!
There were so many fine moments too numerous to mention but as a lover of duets we confess to be blown away by the Act II duet between Czipra and Saffi, which turned into a trio. Also lovely was the duet betwen Arsena and Mirabella.
It is interesting that Ignaz Schnitzer, on request by the composer, based his libretto on the romantic novel Saffi by Hungarian novelist Mor Jokai. The libretto was in German and everyone's German diction was superb, thanks largely to German Diction Coach Mariann Barrett. We loved that it was sung in German with dialogue in English which was mostly clear, thanks to Robert Blumenfeld.
Linda Brovsky's direction was admirable and so was Sean McKnight's choreography. Elizabeth Hope Clancy designed the most splendiferous costumes. The set by Donald Eastman included a gypsy wagon in front of which Czipra did her fortunetelling by means of cards and palmistry. Dave Bova's wigs appeared attractive and authentic.
It is difficult to believe that the singers are all candidates for the degree of Master of Music. Everything about the production was at a professional level. This is something we always expect to find at Manhattan School of Music but those new to the institution will be pleasantly surprised.
(c) meche kroop