The Rose of Stambul
John Frantzen, cond; Kimberly McCord (
); Alison Kelly (
); Erich Buchholz (
); Gerald Frantzen (
); Robert Morrissey (
Mr. Müller Sr.
); Chicago Folks Operetta
NAXOS 8.660326/27 (2 CDs: 120:20) Live: Chicago 8/8/2011
In 1916, Leo Fall’s latest operetta
Die Rose von Stambul
enjoyed a remarkable run of 422 performances at the Theater an der Wien, as the war brought rationing to Vienna, and as the cultures the story celebrated spiraled to their destruction. Though it eventually did come to the United States in 1922, the operetta was never performed here in anything like its original form. That occurred for the first time in the summer of 2011 when it was mounted by the Chicago Folks Operetta. This small but enterprising company—the brainchild and continuing passion of husband and wife team Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly—is dedicated to reviving neglected operettas from the early part of the 20th century.
Die Rose von Stambul
certainly qualifies. Fall never achieved the lasting success that rival composers Emmerich Kálmán (his daughter Yvonne is a CFO sponsor) and Franz Lehár did. And timing was simply against this creation. But there are lilting Viennese waltzes, charming if dated comedy centering on lovely women having their way with their foolish, chauvinistic, and/or love-sotted men, and exotic locales and musical flavoring befitting the ever popular setting of the Turkish seraglio. Only the most confirmed curmudgeon could resist the fun. Bravo CFO for bringing it back.
Unlike its earlier American production, where much of the score was replaced, we are assured, in translator Hersh Glagov’s informative essay, that Chicago Folks Operetta “has not changed a note of Fall’s marvelous music.” Though this is likely the 1917 Berlin revision, fair enough. Still, it would be nicer if those involved could have produced those notes with a bit more flair. Conductor John Frantzen, brother of artistic director Gerald, provides a reasonable impression of Viennese style, but his thin, often scrappy 19-piece orchestra works against the beauty of the music. The women’s chorus, harem sisters à la the Grisettes of
The Merry Widow
, is exuberant but also a bit rough. The waltzes need more
, the dances more refinement to go with the general vivacity, and some of the dialog needs more, well, acting.
The two sopranos are both strong vocalists. Kimberly McCord—who sings what I believe is the expanded version of the role created for Fritzi Massary in 1917—has nice control, range, and style, an appealingly warm tone, and some sparkle on top. Alison Kelly is an accomplished soubrette with excellent comic timing. Comic tenor Erich Buchholz has a strong lyric voice and a good feel for the idiom. In a part that is more spoken than sung, baritone Robert Morrissey sounds like he comes from Pittsburgh rather than Hamburg—he impersonates Wallace Shawn in
The Princess Bride
rather well—but he sings the short part of Müller agreeably. The players in the small spoken roles are community-theater league, but let that pass. It is, I’m sorry to say, tenor Gerald Frantzen who disappoints. He is stiff, can’t hold an extended note steadily little less swell it, and produces strangled sounds at the top of his range where Fall makes the greatest demands. The basic tone of the voice is decent enough in the middle reaches, and has some heft, but is not well equalized and shows clear signs of wear. (Perhaps recording live after the run was not a good idea.) He is shown at a particular disadvantage in his duets with McCord, who clearly has the voice and temperament to give the waltzes their due. Perhaps all would have been better if he and Buchholz had swapped parts, as the comic tenor here has the goods to sing the big numbers and has the looks, as well. If I seem harsh, simply listen to Frantzen and then to Fritz Wunderlich singing any of these arias. Or if that comparison seems unreasonably prejudicial, how about mere mortal Rudolf Schock, or almost any tenor currently recording operettas for Naxos or CPO?
Die Rose von Stambul
is a major work by a neglected master of a musical genre that has too much fallen out of favor. Yes, the plot is silly. This one depends on an easily resolved love triangle with an “invisible rival” of the hero’s own devising, so perhaps it is sillier than most. And the early 20th-century attitudes toward women and Eastern culture can be cringe-inducing. However, the music is delightful, and the burlesque is generally not overdone. The English libretto is available as a download from the Naxos site. The dialog occasionally turns topical—the gay references and the bellhop speaking in rhymed couplet like Fezzik are contemporary—and a war-time reference like Fridolin’s offer to Midili of “two kilos of flour” is changed into “a hundred pairs of shoes.” Still, it seems fairly true to what I know of the original and is reasonably singable. The audio production, identified as a single live recording, is good, though my ears tell me that the dialog was recorded separately. The rather unsubtle sound effects—foot steps, doors opening, ice cubes clinking in glasses, etc.—support that impression. One last niggle: the production poster by Rose Frantzen—another family member, assumedly—reproduced on the cover of the CD, seems wildly out of keeping with the story and the times, eye-catching as it may be.
All reservations aside—and I’ve spent a lot of space enumerating them—this is something most Viennese operetta fanciers will want to hear. Recommended with the caveats cited.
Ronald E. Grames