Chicago Folks Operetta has never met a forgotten operetta it doesn’t like. Or so it would seem. Last summer the enterprising troupe treated “Arizona Lady,” a singing-cowboy rarity by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kalman, to its belated American premiere.
Now the good Folks are back, ensconced for the rest of the month at the charmingly intimate, if minimally air-conditioned, Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park, for what is billed as the first U.S. performances in more than 85 years of another seldom-heard confection, Leo Fall’s “The Rose of Stambul.” They do an engaging job of it.
The Austrian composer never could eclipse Franz Lehar’s enduring popularity in this Viennese genre, although “Rose of Stambul” (1916) achieved considerable popularity among the war-weary audiences of Vienna and Berlin.
While the score is uneven in musical inspiration, it offers a handful of delectable melodies, including the title tune, one of several waltzes that stud the score like cherries in a puffy Bundt cake. Also, the harmonies, tinged with intriguing, quasi-Turkish exoticism appropriate to the harem setting, and Fall’s almost Wagnerian use of through-composed forms, reveal a craft more sophisticated than that of many of his contemporaries.
This is the second Fall operetta to be presented by husband-and-wife company directors Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly. Can Fall’s masterpiece, “Madame Pompadour,” be far behind?
The trifling libretto — here given in a new English translation by artistic director Frantzen and dramaturge Hersh Glagov that’s rife with punning groaners — continues a fascination of European composers with Ottoman Empire culture that gave the world such operas as Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri.” Its romantic contrivances, ostensibly about women’s rights in Turkey, really are there to poke fun at Viennese social and sexual mores of Fall’s day.
Westernized education has made the Turkish pasha’s daughter, Kondja Gul (Kimberly McCord), a fiercely independent young woman who has fallen madly in love with a European novelist who calls himself Andre Lery. Their only contact has been through his passionate love letters. What Kondja doesn’t know is that Lery is actually Achmed Bey (Frantzen), the Turkish prince her father has arranged for her to marry. The comedy of mistaken identities goes on at improbable length before its happy resolution just before the final curtain.
A talented and appealing cast worked hard at Saturday’s opening performance to flavor Fall’s Turkish taffy. Not even their earnest efforts could redeem a first act that was long on exposition, short on memorable music and ill-tuned in the choral singing and the playing of conductor John Frantzen’s rather scrappy chamber orchestra.
Matters perked up considerably from Act 2 onward, beginning with Gerald Frantzen’s Achmed serenading Kondja’s handmaidens in the rousing, Spanish-style “All You Women.” He used his bright, full lyric tenor with gusto throughout the show, cutting a handsome and sympathetic figure as the ardent hero who is trapped by his own deception.
McCord had a more complex character to convey as the thoroughly modern Kondja, who, still not convinced as to her new husband’s true identity, insists he court her for a month following their nuptials.
The alluring soprano brought winning temperament to her wedding-night joust with Frantzen, along with a warm, vibrant voice of size and quality.
Folks Operetta general director Kelly and Erich Buchholz, a company stalwart, were a singing-and-dancing delight as the story’s comic couple, the Turkish girl Midili and her German suitor, Fridolin. Buchholz kicked up his high heels in an exuberant drag number that looked like something out of “La Cage aux Folles,” 60 years before the fact. Robert Morrissey proved himself a master of the astonished comic take as Fridolin’s father.
August Tye supplied the choreography, Kristine Fachet the colorful costumes. Javier Bernardo and Desiree Hassler will alternate with Frantzen and McCord as the romantic leads.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but this “Rose” makes a sweet summer diversion.