Stage Door Review

The Gypsy Baron

Monday, December 30, 2019

✭✭

by Johann Strauss, Jr., directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin

Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

December 28, 29, 31, 2019, January 3 & 5, 2020

Czipra: “Du kannst den Zigeunern getrost vertrau’n;

Auf Alle kannst Du wie auf Felsen bau'n”

Toronto Operetta Theatre has mounted a new production of The Gypsy Baron (Der Zigeunerbaron) by Johann Strauss, Jr. In Europe the 1885 work is second only to Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (1874) in popularity and it is not hard to see why. The Gypsy Baron provides an unending stream of gorgeous melodies including some of Strauss’s most famous waltzes. As is its habit, TOT has given the work a minimalist staging which places all the emphasis on the music and the singing where it should be. With particularly starry casting of the three principal roles, this is an event that lovers of operetta will not want to miss.

The Gypsy Baron is important in music history as the first Viennese operetta to be set in Hungary and where all the main characters are Hungarian. The action takes place in the late 18th century in Temesvar (now Timişoara) in the Banat region. At that time the Kingdom of Hungary was much larger that that of Austria and most of Banat is now part of Romania and Serbia. Before that it has been part of the Ottoman Empire from 1552 to 1716, a fact that comes into play in the plot.

The story concerns the return from exile of Sándor Barinkay (Michael Barrett) to claim the property his father once owned. This includes a ruined castle and land that his wealthy neighbour Kálmán Zsupán (Joshua Clemenger) has taken over for pig-farming. While the local gypsies hail Barinkay as their leader Zsupán is aggrieved at having to lose “his” land. The solution of the Conte Canero (Austin Larusson), Deputy Commissioner for Public Morality, is that Barinkay should marry Zsupán’s daughter, Arsena (Daniela Agostino). Arsena, becomes engaged but is not interested in marriage, as Barinkay secretly discovers, because she is already in love with Ottokar (Edward Larocque) the son of her governess (Karen Bojti). In any case, Barinkay himself has already fallen in love with Saffi (Meghan Lindsay), the daughter of the prominent gypsy fortune-teller Czipra (Beste Kalender).

The plot involves Czipra’s prophesies and their fulfilment, the discovery of buried treasure and the revelation of a character’s true identity – events all more at home in historical romance than in operetta. Because of his love for Saffi and his knowledge of Arsena’s relationship, Barinkay breaks off his engagement to Arsena causing anger in her family only to find he cannot honourably marry Saffi. In consequence he joins the Hapsburg army along many of the other young men and they march off to war.

If there is a difficulty with the libretto it is that all the obstacles that Barinkay faces are too easily overcome. Rather than looking for dramatic conflict it is better to regard the operetta as a celebration of the rise and rise of a nobody at the the beginning of the action to his triumph in love, wealth and power by the end. Strauss’s music is a major factor in carrying the audience from one of Barinkay’s successes to the next.

Unlike Die Fledermaus, The Gypsy Baron is not a comic farce but an historical romance. Strauss originally imagined it as an opera but was convinced to give more emphasis to its comic elements to make it an operetta. The music is still much more demanding than that of Die Fledermaus and musicologists tend to classify the work as a comic opera rather than an operetta.

The Gypsy Baron thus requires very strong opera singers in its major roles. This it has in the starry trio TOT as assembled. Michael Barrett, known to TOT audiences from Taptoo! in 2012, has a warm expressive tenor ideal for Barinkay. His glowing tone in Barinkay’s entrance song “Als flotter Geist, doch früh verwaist” (“An orphan from my early days”) brings out the self-satire in the words rather than the boastfulness and immediately makes Barinkay a sympathetic figure. His sensitivity to the lyrics helps make Barinkay’s lovely duet with Saffi, “Wer uns getraut?” (“Who tied the knot?”) one of highlights of the show. Barrett is also a fine actor and given that Barinkay, despite setbacks, experiences one stroke of good fortune after another, Barrett knows how to gradate Barinkay’s expressions of surprise and joy.

TOT audiences enjoyed mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender’s delightful portrayal of Helen in La Belle Hélène last year will find her Czipra just as alluring. Kalender’s voice is at once dark and clear rather like a fine red wine. She avoids clichés in the inevitable fortune-telling scene and communicates through her body language and facial expression that Czipra possesses a far greater knowledge of what will happen than any of the other characters.

Making her TOT debut is soprano Meghan Lindsay, whom opera-goers will know well from her many years of singing for Opera Atelier. To hear her move away from her familiar baroque and classical repertoire to sing in operetta is a major revelation. Lindsay seems to revel in the the very different modes of phrasing, vocal leaps and extended high notes that Strauss requires. Lindsay’s account of Saffi’s showpiece “So elend und treu is keiner” (“None braver, none to true”) is simply electrifying. Her rich, cultured tone and impeccable technique help bring out, along with Barrett and Kalender, the fundamentally operatic nature of Strauss’s score. Lindsay first showed audiences her talent for a 19th-century style when she sang Agathe in Der Freischütz (1821) for Opera Atelier in 2012. Her performance as Saffi confirms that she has completely mastered 19th-century style.

All of the other characters, save Count Homonay, form the comic counterweight to the three serious characters of Barinkay, Czipra and Saffi. As Arsena, Daniela Agostino has a bright, agile soprano and tossed off the coloratura passages in “Dem Freier naht die Braut” (“A suitor seeks a bride”) with ease. As Mirabella, Arsena’s governess Karen Bojti boasts a powerful mezzo-soprano and would make an ideal Little Buttercup, Ruth or Dame Carruthers in any future Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

An effective Zsupán needs a stronger voice and more secure stage presence than Joshua Clemenger is able to supply. Greater clarity of diction would have made Zsupán’s comic tale of what he did in the war much funnier. Tenor Edward Larocque gives a lively portrayal of Ottokar, Arsena’s milquetoast lover, and Cian Horrobin, whose tenor acquires a more heroic tone with every appearance is well-cast as the patriotic Count Homonay, who urges on new recruits with the rousing song “Her die Hand, es muss ja sein” (“Comrade, drink a glass of wine”).

Usually, the TOT Orchestra is notable for its precision. Strauss’s music for The Gypsy baron is more difficult than for Die Fledermaus because so many numbers involve frequent changes of tempo. On the opening night, conductor Derek Bate seemed to struggle to get the string section to follow his beat so that many of these tempo changes felt effortful rather than effortless as they should. The TOT Chorus, however, is in fine form and brought well disciplined excitement to all their contributions. Some may know that The Gypsy Baron contains the second most famous Anvil Chorus after Verdi’s Il Trovatore (1853). Director Guillermo Silva-Marin did not have the chorus use anvils, but instead had it punctuate its song with bangs on the various metal pots and shields it was working on.

The Gypsy Baron is a treasure chest of melody. Even if you have never heard the operetta in full before, you will recognize several of the musical numbers such as the famous “Schatz-Walzer” (“Treasure Waltz”), the chorus “Ja das Alles auf Ehr’” (“Take thou my hand”) or the “Brautschau” (“Looking for a wife’) polka. 

TOT last staged The Gypsy Baron in 1999. Its current production is the only production in North America listed for the period 2016-2020 even though there are productions not only in Germanophone countries but in France, Estonia, Poland, Russia and Turkey in the same period. That TOT is staging it is a sign of the great service it provides in preserving the diversity of music theatre on this side of the pond. Filling your ears with Strauss’s life-affirming melodies is the perfect way to see out the old year or see in the new. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Michael Barrett as Sandor Barinkay and Meghan Lindsay as Saffi with ensemble; Meghan Lindsay as Saffi, Michael Barrett as Sandor Barinkay and Beste Kalender as Czipra; Meghan Lindsay as Saffi. © 2019 Gary Beechey.

For tickets, visit www.torontooperetta.com.