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Paul ABRAHÁM (1892-1960)
Ball at the Savoy/Ball im Savoy, operetta in three acts (1932)
Alison Kelly (soprano) - Madelaine de Faublas
Gerald Frantzen (tenor) - Aristide de Faublas
Ryan Trent Oldham (baritone) - Mustafa Bey
Cynthia Fortune Gruel (soprano) - Daisy Parker
Rose Guccione (soprano) - Bébé
Bridget Skaggs (mezzo) - Tangolita
Matt Dyson (baritone) - Célestin
Folks Operetta Chorus and Orchestra/Anthony Barrese
Sung in English translation by Hersh Glagov and Gerald Frantzen
rec. 22 November 2014, Percy Julian Auditorium, Oak Park, USA
Booklet notes in English; an English libretto is available for download
NAXOS 8.660503-04 [73:21 + 66:33]

Paul Abrahám is among the last of the celebrated operetta composers to have had smash hits prior to the end of the Weimar Republic and the eventual domination of Germanic arts by the Nazis and finished off by the chaos of WWII. Abrahám brought a fresh, updated sound to his work that included a healthy dose of jazz rhythms and percussive sounds; this infused the tired-sounding Viennese operetta with a modern tone, not unlike what George Gershwin was trying to achieve in classical music in the USA at roughly the same period. Being a Jew, Abrahám’s music was not able to survive the Nazis; his escape to the USA effectively brought his composing career to an end, plunging him into years of depression and mental illness from which he never was able to recover.

Ball im Savoy was his final, and for a brief time, his most successful operetta. It was premiered in Berlin during December 1932; it was a last final blaze of celebrity for him before the Nazis took over Germany two months later. The star attraction of the premiere was the glittering Hungarian coloratura soprano Gitta Alpár, who was recorded singing most of her arias from this piece by the Odeon and Parlophone labels. For many years these were the only available recordings from the operetta and most of these old gems can currently be found on You Tube, along with others made by the rest of the 1932 cast. Alpár, who was also a Jew was forced to flee Germany and eventually found work in Hollywood where she continued her career, mostly in small roles until 1941.

The plot of Ball at the Savoy is basically a reworking of Die Fledermaus, with a wife attending a ball in disguise to catch her husband cheating on her. There are various secondary characters which add extra interest to the basic plot; and the librettist brings in the device of private dining chambers at a party to add extra complications, a trick borrowed from the plot of Wiener Blut. To this entangled plot structure Abrahám’s music adds a heady mixture of Jazz, Waltzes, Tangos and Two-Steps. This new release on Naxos is the first complete recording of the work to be made available; it includes all of the music and dialogue sung in a new English translation. The recording was made over eight years ago which makes me wonder if it was done as an archival effort by the Folks Operetta troupe which are based in Chicago. If that is so it is an uncommonly well-produced example, which includes very convincing sound effects for atmosphere and the dialogue is delivered in such an assured fashion that I would swear I was listening to a Radio Drama of exceptional quality. Much of the music underscores the dialogue so it is welcome to hear the operetta as it would have been experienced in Berlin at the premiere, minus the German language. I must doff my hat to the engineers who came up with superb example of clever sound effects that use telephone conversations in constantly changing perspectives.

The performers are all exceptionally good at delivering their dialogue with style and theatrical flair and for the most part they capture old world/new world ethos of the musical numbers. Gerald Frantzen as the male lead gives a good account of his music with a pleasant sounding tenor although much of the role stays within the baritone range. Alison Kelly as his wife sings her music with commitment and abandon despite not always being ideally sweet of tone or displaying steadiness of vocal line. She does get one of the best lines of dialogue in the play when in her Russian disguise she orders “Champagne with Chartreuse, Gin and Vodka”, a combination that still leaves my head spinning when I think about it.

In the secondary roles Ryan Trent Oldham as the customarily feckless, pleasure-loving baritone perks things up whenever he arrives upon the scene. His Turkish character adds a bit of interest to the usual operetta formula. His pitch is becomes rather suspect on any sustained notes, but in listening to the original 1932 recordings of Oscar Denes, who sang the role for the Berlin premiere, I noted that Denes also suffered from the same tendency. Cynthia Fortune Gruel as a jazz-baby chanteuse and incognito composer hits all of the right notes both vocally and dramatically. Bridget Skaggs as the spicy Tangolita from Santa Fe reveals a fruity-sounding mezzo that doesn’t quite match the character.

Anthony Barrese who conducts this performance, is also a well established musicologist who was responsible for the recent performing edition of Franco Faccio’s opera Amletto, a recording of which I reviewed for MWI two years ago (review). Here he displays sympathy with the operetta/musical comedy style and he has a small orchestra who respond well to his direction. The notes indicate that the orchestration is a reduction made from the original manuscript score, which never sounds to my ears as if anything was wanting in the way of richness, style or glamour. The Folks Operetta Chorus begins a bit weakly but they soon manage to find their form among the proceedings. All said this is a delightful discovery and I am hoping Naxos will find its way to release more recordings from the Folks Operetta repertoire as I will certainly be watching out for more.

Mike Parr

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