Operetta should be lightweight fun, and Ball im Savoy delivers plenty of that. But the new production at the State Opera, part of an ongoing Czech-German series highlighting work by composers who suffered under totalitarianism, offers a convincing demonstration that it can also be substantive, smartly satirical and incredibly inventive. When Savoy premiered to rave reviews in Berlin in 1933, composer Paul Abraham was rightfully lauded as the herald of a new era.

Doubravka Součková (Madeleine de Faublas)
© Národní divadlo | Zdeněk Sokol

The story opens with the Marquis Aristide de Faublas and his wife Madeleine returning to Nice after a year-long honeymoon, still smitten with each other and declaring their eternal devotion. Complications quickly develop when Aristide gets a telegram from an old girlfriend, the exotic dancer Tangolita, calling in a longstanding dinner date. He and his friend Mustafah Bej, the Turkish attaché, concoct a thin cover story that Madeleine and Daisy, her sister visiting from America, quickly see through and decide to spy on the men at the rendezvous, a grand ball that night at the Hotel Savoy. The Marquis ends up in a hotel room with Tangolita, Madeleine in an adjoining room with Célestine, a young man she picks up out of spite, Daisy falls for Mustafah, and questions about virtue and faithfulness take a lot of bright music and sharp humor to finally resolve in a happy ending.

Barbora Řeřichová (Daisy Parker) and Daniel Matoušek (Mustafah)
© Národní divadlo | Zdeněk Sokol

Infidelity is an old trope in everything from Shakespeare to Strauss, but librettists Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda give it a fresh spin in Savoy, with strong, modern women ready for a knock-down battle of the sexes. “An eye for an eye, a kiss for a kiss,” Madeleine declares in a defiant announcement that she’s been untrue. Daisy interviews all eight of Mustafah’s ex-wives before deciding he’s a fit partner. Tangolita struts around the stage like Carmen, an allusion reinforced by music lifted almost directly out from Bizet, which at one point includes a deliberately sour version of “Toreador” coaxed out of the orchestra by Mustafah in explaining how a bull was frightened away.

Jakub Svojanovský (Célestine), Daniel Matoušek, Jiří Hájek (Aristide) and Barbora Řeřichová (Daisy)
© Národní divadlo | Zdeněk Sokol

Bizet is just one in a blizzard of references and styles employed by Abraham, whom some critics dismissed as simply stitching together a pastiche. From a contemporary vantage point the score sounds brilliant, a dazzling amalgam of classical, jazz, cabaret, a variety of dance rhythms and colorful invocations of the circus and juke joints. Over the course of nearly three hours, there’s not a wasted note. The music is carefully crafted to fit the moment: tender love and loss arias for Madeleine, honky-tonk for Daisy’s hardscrabble background story, cocktail bar piano at the hotel and jump rhythms for a new dance called “the kangaroo”. And the songs – some so engaging that the audience at the premiere clapped along at times – beg to be done as big production numbers...

Which director Martin Čičvák delivers to the point of exhaustion, showcasing nonstop, high-energy period choreography by Ladislav Cmorej and Silvia Beláková. That’s in keeping with the overall pace set by Čičvák, which owes a lot to Hollywood musicals and screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s also a perfect match for the snappy patter and witty asides, like the butler assessing Aristide’s predicament at one point and concluding, “That would make a great operetta!” Hans Hoffer's sets invoke the glamour and flair of Hollywood’s golden era, and his design of the adjoining hotel rooms – two backlit boxes reducing the lovers to silhouettes – is both visually and metaphorically striking.

Jakub Svojanovský (Célestine) and Doubravka Součková (Madeleine de Faublas)
© Národní divadlo | Zdeněk Sokol

A strong cast added zest to opening night. Doubravka Součková was in great voice as Madeleine, equally convincing as a warm, devoted spouse and wronged, vengeful lover. Jiří Hájek’s bravado and charm made Aristide a lovable rogue, and as Tangolita, Linda Caridad Fernandez Saez showed smooth moves and irresistible sex appeal. Barbora Řeřichová dominated her time onstage as a swaggering Daisy Parker, though the singer who nearly stole the show was Daniel Matoušek, chewing up the scenery as Mustafah, the self-styled Turkish Don Juan.

Conductor Jan Kučera led a skillful, spirited performance, with razor-sharp changes in tempos and textures, even entire genres. And the State Opera dancers and chorus provided a strong spine for Savoy, bringing the production numbers to life in a whirlwind of animated singing and stomping.

Doubravka Součková, Jakub Svojanovský, Linda Caridad Fernandez Saez (Tangolita) and Jiří Hájek
© Národní divadlo | Zdeněk Sokol

As for Abraham, he was the toast of Berlin after the premiere of Savoy. One month later the Nazis came to power and declared all Jewish art verboten, ending his career in Germany. By 1939 he was penniless in Paris, then managed to make his way to the United States, where he ended up in a psychiatric clinic. Grünwald also managed to escape to the US, but his fellow librettist Löhner-Beda was not so fortunate, dying in a concentration camp in 1942. Resurrecting Savoy is a fitting tribute to their legacy and a worldly, innovative work that was ahead of its time.