Emmerich Kálmán is hardly a household name in the English-speaking world, but the composer’s operettas are beloved in his native Hungary. His most successful work, Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess), celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year, and the Budapest Operetta Theatre is marking the occasional with an international tour. The production’s Munich première at the Deutsches Theater was an evening of lively playing, impressive performances, and contagious fun.

Die Csárdásfürstin © Budapest Operetta Theatre
Die Csárdásfürstin
© Budapest Operetta Theatre

Sylva Varescu is a beautiful and successful cabaret singer about to embark on a tour to America with the Count Boni as her manager. Prince Edwin is in love with her (and she with him), but his family wants him to marry his cousin, the Countess Stasi. Eight weeks later, upon returning from her tour, Sylva attends a party hosted by Edwin’s family under the pretense of being Boni’s wife. Boni immediately falls in love with Stasi (Edwin’s soon-to-be-fiancée), and Edwin declares that he is still in love with Sylva (Boni’s pretended wife). Edwin tells Sylva that her marriage to (and upcoming divorce from) Boni will eliminate Edwin’s family’s objections and enable their happiness. Indignant that Edwin thinks more of her as a countess than as a singer, Sylva publicly humiliates him and leaves. He chases her; his parents chase him. In the confusion that follows, it is revealed that Edwin’s proud, aristocratic mother is also a former nightclub singer! Edwin’s family can no longer reasonably object, so Edwin marries Sylva and Boni marries Stasi.

Despite the characters’ crosses in love, the whole show is infused with an air of boozy revelry. The Champagne never stops flowing. Every act has at least one catchy dance number with a high-kicking chorus line. (The enthusiastic audience always clapped along.) Ágnes Gyarmathy’s sets drip with gold and velvet, and Anni Füyer’s costumes sparkle with beads and sequins. This production by KERO places emphasis on the World War I era setting by putting lots of soldiers on the stage, but even they are comically presented. The added character of the wounded ‘war hero’ Schultheib Arnold is nothing more than a running gag – he tells the same war story repeatedly and always finishes by pretending to gun down everyone present with his crutches.

The show’s biggest strength is its cast (who deserve extra commendation for performing in German). Sylva owns the operetta, and Mónika Fischl doesn’t disappoint with her charismatic character and full, rich voice. She’s best on her ringing high notes; her sound gets harsh lower in her range. Her voice is also big enough to overpower Edwin’s (Gergely Boncsér’s) in their duets. When he sings solo, Boncsér shows off a lovely legato throughout and squillo on his top notes. Annamari Dancs (Stasi) has a voice with a grating nasal quality, and Dávid Szabó (Boni) sings with a less lyrical, more speech-like sound. But the pair steal scenes with their dancing, featuring jaw-dropping lifts, spins, splits, and aerials. Boni also shows adorable naiveté in his acting; his Act III telephone monologue is a comedic masterpiece. As Edwin’s mother, Bori Kállay impresses with her sheer exuberance. Finally, German celebrity Ralph Morgenstern models perfect deadpan delivery in the bit part of the waiter and butler.

Die Csárdásfürstin © Budapest Operetta Theatre
Die Csárdásfürstin
© Budapest Operetta Theatre

The chorus sounds consistently strong and balanced, and is clearly made up of talented waltzers, to boot. The dancers are busy throughout the show, and they manage everything from high kicks to a chair-scooting number with finesse. The orchestra keeps the whole operetta lively, and conductor László Makláry does an incredible job of keeping pace with the singers (who take a lot of liberties with tempi and switch between speaking and singing mid-line). A special musical mention goes to the (unfortunately uncredited) onstage clarinetist in act III, whose fast, flexible playing was extraordinary to see and hear.

This production of Die Csárdásfürstin ends with an upbeat medley of the show’s catchiest tunes, accompanied by the explosion of confetti cannons, two dramatic kisses and a kick line. The audience left the theatre grinning widely. The operetta is a frothy musical comedy, but it’s a very good one, and it deserves to be better-known outside of Hungary. This hundredth-anniversary production is a perfect introduction to the piece for international audiences.

****1