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Operetta Evening at the Austrian Embassy

One should always read the information about concerts very carefully. In last week's Classical Week in Washington, I had listed the Evening of Austro-Hungarian Operetta I attended Friday night as being at the Hungarian Embassy, which indeed it was on Thursday night. On Friday and Saturday nights, the performers presented a slightly different program, but at the Austrian Embassy, which was very clearly announced on the Web site for the Embassy Series. So there I was, unwittingly crashing a private reception at the Hungarian Embassy on Friday night. Fortunately, the Hungarian cultural ambassador was kind enough to give me directions to the Austrian Embassy, which was lucky since I did not even have an address for it. Well, I missed the first selection, by the four string players on the program, but was able to hear the rest of it.

Krisztina Dávid and Marko Kathol at the Austrian Embassy, May 20, 2005This concert featured two singers in solos and a few duets from operettas by Austrian and Hungarian composers. Hungarian soprano Krisztina Dávid has followed an atypical career trajectory, beginning as a dancer and debuting as a singer in, of all things, Les Misérables, at the Budapest Operettatheatre in 1993. That she sang the role of Cosette does not surprise me, given the decidedly light, somewhat warbly character of her voice (you can hear a few recorded examples here), but that she also recently sang Violetta in La Traviata (at a summer festival in Sopron, Hungary) does, given the power needed for that role. (Her resemblance to actress Kate Hudson is visible even in the photograph shown here.) Completing the reunification of the two halves of the old Habsburg empire, Austrian tenor Marko Kathol has also made a career mostly in music theater and light operetta. He showed a breezy confidence on stage, yucking up the funny lines and situations of the pieces he sang. His voice was nasally resonant, not unpleasantly so, although he was capable of soft high singing that probably would not carry on a large stage but that was just fine in a concert setting.

The selections were mostly favorite operetta standards, with pieces from Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Eine Nacht in Venedig (the Lagunewalzer), Die Fledermaus (Adele's Aria), and Der Zigeunerbaron ("Als flotter Geist"), as well as from the silver age of Viennese operetta, pieces by that Hungarian transplant, Ferenc (AKA Franz) Lehár and his Die lustige Witwe ("Vilja Lied," Mr. Kathol's very funny rendition of "Da geh ich ins Maxim," and the duet "Lippen schweigen"). I was pleasantly surprised to make a few personal operetta discoveries, beginning with Carl Zeller's Der Vogelhändler, from which Mr. Kathol gave us Adam the bird-seller's "Grüss Euch Gott," with its charming little birdsong interlude. Ms. Dávid came on first with a "Bolero" from Hungarian composer Imre Vincze (1926–1969), which showed off her melismatic flexibility.

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Imre Kálmán, Die Csárdásfürstin, Heinz Holecek, Hellmuth Klumpp, Marko Kathol, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Richard Bonynge
Imre Kálmán, Die Herzogin von Chicago, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Richard Bonynge
I was most interested to hear several pieces by another Hungarian composer I had never heard of, Imre Kálmán (1882–1953). (Sadly, nothing from his operetta Die Herzogin von Chicago, premiered in Vienna in 1928. I certainly must learn something more about an operetta with a title like The Duchess of Chicago.) From what we heard of excerpts from two operettas—Die Csárdásfürstin (Vienna, 1915) and Gräfin Maritza (Vienna, 1924)—Kálmán's music was forged in the same furnace as Kurt Weill's, with the jazz of the café-cabaret, the Austrian waltz, and his own Hungarian folksong as the main elements. Mr. Kathol did a fine job with the soaring and pretty waltz melody of "Grüss' mir die süssen" from Gräfin Maritza, and there was a distinct ragtime or Charleston feel to the duet "Komm mit nach Varazdin." In fact, the plot of Die Csárdásfürstin involves a young aristocrat not allowed to marry a cabaret singer until his mother is forced to reveal that she was originally a cabaret singer herself.

Local pianist George Peachey gave an understated but capable performance accompanying the singers at the piano. Violinist Peter Sirotin was joined by three other young string players for the Friday and Saturday program, which was quite different from what was given on Thursday at the Hungarian Embassy. During their rendition of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Tales from the Vienna Woods, the impromptu string quartet's violist snapped off the endpiece of his bow, leaving him with a bunch of loose horsehair, something I had never seen happen before. (He dismissed this with a joke: "We'll try it again with another bow. It's good music!") Predictably, many in the audience clapped along to Strauss's Radetsky-March, which is to the New Year's concert in Vienna what Sousa's Stars and Stripes is to the 4th of July in Washington.

At intermission, I perused the exhibit of photographs from the 1940s and 50s on the walls of the main hall, including many related to music and the arts: Clemens Krauss conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Musikverein in 1945; Franz Lehár on his deathbed; Herbert von Karajan inspecting his airplane (he flew himself between concerts); the sculptor Gustinus Ambrosi displaying Haydn's skull before putting it back in its coffin; the first production in the rebuilt Vienna State Opera House, Beethoven's Fidelio with Karl Böhm conducting; and Friedensreich Hundertwasser in front of one of his paintings, in the Strohkoffer night club in Vienna. As if our musical teeth had not been rotted by a concert of operetta, we were treated to a reception of delicious cheese, wine, and pastry by the Austrian Embassy.

See the review by Joseph McClellan (Washington Post, May 21), although his opening sentence ("Vienna and Budapest sent two of their best operetta singers to Washington") is characteristically hyperbolic.

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