On August 17th, the Budapest Operetta Theater presented Emmerich Kalman’s beloved classic Die Csárdásfürstin at Berlin’s Waldbühne amphitheater. Directed and conducted by László Makláry, the operetta starred Anna Maria Kaufmann, German actor Ralph Morgenstern, and the ensemble of the Budapest Operetta Theater in a comedy about true love, social class, and the hardships of getting real champagne at the beginning of the First World War.

The story itself is simple and hilarious enough to seem like something out of P.G. Wodehouse: Prince Edwin loves Sylva Varescu, the popular cabaret singer, to the horror of his parents. Though they sign an engagement agreement, Edwin’s family forces him into an engagement with his cousin, the unfortunately named Countess Stasi. On the night of their engagement party, Sylva and their mutual friend, Count Boni crash the party, pretending to be married so that Sylva can attend such a high class event. Boni and Stasi promptly fall madly in love, and Edwin announces that he will marry “Countess Kaucsiano” immediately. Incensed that her lover would allow social class to dictate the terms of their marriage, Sylva reveals her true identity and storms out. A series of shenanigans ensues as Boni, Stasi, a sauve count and stage manager called Feri Basci, the chorus girls of his club and a butler try to get them back together. Love triumphs when Edwin’s mother admits to having been a famous cabaret singer in her own time and bullies her husband into letting the two marry for love. And through it all shines song and dance numbers that would put Astaire and Rogers to shame.

Emmerich Kalman’s genius with Die Csárdásfürstin was to make the music a mixture of Viennese waltz and Hungarian dances, perfectly suited to its setting in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The music is fun, catchy – the sort of music that makes the audience clap and stamp in time. Though they were playing from a tent a good distance away from the stage and amplified for all to hear, the Orchestra of the Budapest Operetta Theater played with strength and style, never once getting ahead of the singers or drowning them out. Both orchestra and singers were amplified, thus filling Berlin’s Waldbühne amphitheater with enough sound to put a movie theater to shame. Save for one or two brief moments when the amplification system went out, the performers did an outstanding job.

Operetta is known for its light, comic plots, sharing many similarities in character to English-language musicals. This relationship was particularly obvious at the Waldbühne performance, where the star of the show, Anna Maria Kaufmann as Sylva Varescu, is not an opera singer but a well-known German-Canadian musical theater star. Perhaps best known in German-speaking countries as the voice of Christine on The Phantom of the Opera’s German cast recording, Kaufmann’s voice is light and fine, with a dignity to it that lends itself well to Sylva’s character. Her voice is perhaps better suited to Broadway tunes than operetta and opera, but she sang with real aplomb, and her acting skills were delightful. Her Edwin, Zsolt Vadász, sang with a fine tenor that seemed almost baritonal at times, soulful and yearning. After a strong first act, he began his Act 2 aria with an alarming faintness, but swiftly recovered.

Die Csárdásfürstin © Véra Eder
Die Csárdásfürstin
© Véra Eder

The evening’s comic couple, Boni and Stasi (sung by Károly Peller and Szilvi Szendy) stole the show. Peller’s Boni was a lesson in the comic sidekick: one of Sylva’s failed suitors, he helps her with her career and her continual lovers’ spats, even going so far as to engineer the lovers’ reconciliation. Peller’s voice is a light, bright tenor, with a beauty of tone that made his numerous arias a joy to listen to. As Stasi, Szendy played the innocent and fluffy debutante with real panache, squeaking and giggling and prancing her way through every scene, her lyric soprano strong and bright. Stasi and Boni have some of the best music in the show, and between them, Pellers and Szendy had the audience writhing with glee.

Also deserving attention were Bori Kállay as Anhilte, former cabaret star, princess, and Edwin’s mother, and Ralph Morgenstern as the sometimes-butler, sometimes-club manager, always-spy for Feri Basci. Tamás Főldes as Feri Basci himself sang with an eloquent baritone, commenting on the silliness of life and love with affection for everyone around him. The ensemble united to present a performance that had the audience in Berlin crying with laughter and dancing in their seats with glee.

The production itself was straightforward, without any attempts to update it or make it mean something other than Kálmán originally intended. Die Csárdásfürstin premiered in Vienna’s Johann Strauss Theater on 17 November 1915, thus allowing for such gags as a soldier hero on medical leave who can’t stop pretending to machine gun everyone in sight and the lament that “we only have six cases of champagne because of this damned war!” The production was bright and colourful, from the dancing girls’ glittering corsets and feathers to the noble guests’ silky dresses and tuxedos. With excellent singing, great acting, and all the glitter and dazzle that make operetta fun, it was no surprise that the audience ate Die Csárdásfürstin up.

And in the end, there was a sweet gesture from the director: Emmerich Kálmán’s daughter, Yvonne, was in the audience, seated in the first row. She was invited up – a little old lady in sparkling pink – to dance with László Makláry while the cast sang and danced the Act 2 waltz. Brilliant: a perfect ending to a beautiful night.

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