Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Ball at the Savoy (Naxos)

By Harry Forbes

Hungarian composer Paul Abrahám’s flavorsome jazz operetta, which premiered to acclaim in 1932 Berlin, only to have its run cut short by the Nazis, as a result of Abrahám's and several of the leads’ Jewish heritage, receives its first -- and very welcome -- complete recording courtesy of Naxos and the Chicago Folks Operetta. 

Librettists Fritz Löhner-Beda and Alfred Grünwald fashioned a story not unlike that of “Die Fledermaus” wherein a wife goes to the titular ball at the Savoy in Nice in disguise to spy on her philandering husband, though in this narrative, she endeavors not to flirt with her clueless husband, but rather enjoy a vengeful romance of her own. The central couple, Aristide, the Marquis de Faublas, and his wife Madeleine (originated by the great Gitta Alpár) are played here by real life couple Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, respectively artistic director and executive director and co-founders of the Chicago Folks Operetta. (In 2013, Naxos issued a similarly complete recording of Leo Fall’s “The Rose of Stambul.”)

Chicago Folks Operetta’s 2014 production (briefly streamed last year at the start of the pandemic lockdown) followed on the heels of a 2010 WDR radio broadcast with the Cologne Philharmonic conducted by Eckehard Stier, arranged from the original manuscript by Henning Hagedorn and Matthias Grimminger. That, in turn, led to a memorable 2012 mounting by Berlin’s Komische Oper, led by Barrie Kosky, which was streamed internationally the following year. 

Recording wise, apart from the peerless original Berlin and London recordings, we’ve only had select highlight recordings, and far fewer of those for that matter than of Abrahám’s more enduring works, “Viktoria und ihr Husar” and “Die Blume von Hawaii.” So the present release is all the more welcome. 

Folks Operetta’s Musical Director Anthony Barrese leads his forces in a spirited reduction of the aforementioned orchestrations. There are 18 players in the orchestra, but the sound is satisfyingly full-bodied, and they handle the romantic pieces, the dramatic finales, and the wonderfully infectious jazzy numbers (the unique feature of Abrahám’s works) very well indeed.

Though it can’t be said the cast captures the authentic European flavor of this most Continental of works, nor that the line readings are, on the whole, more than serviceable, the full dialogue on the recording does allow us to hear all the music in its appropriate context and was thus worth inclusion. Still, at times,  I couldn’t help thinking the mostly uninflected American accents heard here would be better suited to one of Jerome Kern’s Princess Theater shows than the exoticism of “Ball im Savoy.” 

Vocally, everyone is certainly adequate, sometimes more so. Cynthia Fortune Gruel as Madeleine’s American cousin Daisy, and Ryan Trent Oldham as the much-married Mustafa Bey have the liveliest, jazziest numbers (“Kangaroo,” “Mister Brown and Lady Claire,” “Out on the Town,”  “The Niagara Fox,” “At Home along the Bosporus,”and “Take a Trip to Alma-ata,” “Why Am I In Love With You?”) and threaten to steal the proceedings just as Rosy Barsony and Oskar Dénes did in 1932. And I’d venture to bet any of these numbers could bring down the house if done on Broadway today. Both Barsony and Dénes, incidentally, were able to reprise their roles in the 1933 London production at Drury Lane adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II, 10 years before he joined forces with Richard Rodgers for “Oklahoma!”  

Bridget Skaggs has some bright moments as Tangolito, the femme fatale who was Aristide’s former flame, and holds him to a long-ago IOU to have dinner with her whenever she asks for it, thereby setting the plot in motion. She gets to sing one of the show’s breakout hits, the catchy “Bella Tangolita.”

Kelly’s version of the show’s other big takeaway tune, “Toujours, L’amour” is nicely done, if not with Alpár’s intoxicating allure. And she does well with the opening paean to “Sevilla” (in tandem with Frantzen), her exuberant description of her “Wedding Night” (with Gruell), and a couple of other touching pieces. She has fun with an amusing Russian accent in her ball disguise. 

It would be fascinating to hear a reconstruction of that London version with Hammerstein’s lyrics, but Hersh Glagov and Frantzen’s translations are skillful, often clever, and perhaps adhere more closely to the original German text. 

Recording quality is fine. The music registers as satisfyingly full-bodied, and the dialogue is cleanly captured. There’s a detailed synopsis and informative essay by Glagov. A full libretto can be accessed on the Naxos website. 

The German language productions previously mentioned were, perforce, the more characterful but until one or both of them are issued commercially, Naxos is the only way to go to hear this wonderful score. But the present recording’s fresh and committed cast and accomplished musicianship makes it more than a stopgap. And, of course, the English language translation will be a boon to non-German speakers.