“The struggle for pleasure is the struggle for life,” uttered after an dramatic pause near the end of the Hungarian premiere of a new revival of “Riviera Girl” (1917) in the new Kálmán Imre Theatre on April 20, pretty much summed up how to fathom such unfathomable things as war, gambling, and love.
That scene, an electric moment where one of the three men who were competing madly for the hand of a glamorous theatre singer, Sylva, may not have been the most philosophical setting for such pearls of wisdom — given the surrounding circumstances. World War I was raging in Europe; meanwhile, lives continued sub-rosa in casinos, and bohemians and nobility (despite the era’s taboos on crossing class lines) were falling madly in love with each other. What to do? Quote Nietsche, of course.
The staging of “Riviera Girl,” with music by Emmerich Kálmán, Hungary’s beloved operetta composer, sported a giant roulette wheel as an alternate stage zone right at the lip of the main stage. Saying the words “main stage” for the 170-seat Kálmán theatre (built in 1894 and now freshly refurbished) is only amusing because the cabaret space is so diminutive that you can practically hear the actors thinking from any point in the room. Formerly used as a dance hall and a café, and annexed to the right side of the Budapest Operetta Theatre (BOT) for more than a century, the new theatre offered up, most appropriately, “Riviera Girl,” as both were making their debuts together.
This premiere, performed by the estimable members of BOT, using a new Hungarian translation by Péter Závada, occurred 100 years after it was written in English for a Broadway theatre in New York, by two of the American theatre world’s most famous writers: Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. They had more or less re-fashioned Kálmán’s “Csárdásfürstin” (Gipsy Princess) which had been playing steadily in Vienna for two years. The plot for “Riviera Girl” needed to be tweaked because the U.S. was at war with Austro-Hungary. So they chose Monte Carlo as a more neutral setting in Europe that still offered plenty of show-biz razzmatazz, casinos, and a less socially conservative milieu for the mixing of such couples.
The original cast list also introduced two American characters who provided an entirely new subplot. The only character with the same name in “Csárdásfürstin” is the singer Sylva, and she sings the same well-known “Haja” song that opens the source production (although in the 2017 show, it’s transposed down a bit so it’s less operatic). The 1917 show, which also introduced two new songs by Jerome Kern, only enjoyed a short run on Broadway despite so many noteable names involved. It then toured extensively in the U.S. and subsequently was revived in St. Louis in 1932.
This new Budapest version was expertly cobbled together with the help of two prominent American collectors of operetta scores, books, and recordings: Michael Miller and Richard Norton, who found songs and the script, respectively, which were previously thought to be missing. There was no original score in the Kálmán archive, unfortunately, so Tamás Bolba created modern orchestrations for the show that incorporated a few electronic sounds (including the Hammond organ) and a small ensemble of violin, bass, keyboards, reeds, and drums, conducted at the keyboard by Adrián Kovács.
So what is fascinatingly fathomable in this new version of the Kálmán/Bolton/Wodehouse opus is the way KERO, the artistic director, has refashioned the whole thing to reflect almost every decade in that 100 years. Every kind of music and dance style appears, as well as fashions, props, and psychological attitudes: it’s a sped-up kaleidoscope that delineates the vast changes in visual and musical stage presentation up to now. 21st century hi-tech features like videos and digital keyboards meld innocuously with yesteryear’s charm and simplicity. Much of the intense updating invites plenty of debate, but when it gets down to basics, the plot doesn’t appear to suffer from the lineup of anachronisms (except for the bit about the World War I soldiers making an appearance — wait, what year was this?). We’re still hooked on the characters’ gambling woes, lovelorn dilemmas, and enlightened philosophical solutions to life’s viscissitudes, large and small.
All eleven cast members were outstanding. Notable are silver-voiced Enikö Lévai who played Sylva with a slight brooding quality; the scene where she turns down the man who has fought mightily to marry her was a moving pivotal point in not only her emotional logic, but as a societal marker of a woman’s right to choose her own future. Her would-be suitors included Sándor Barkóczi as Karl, the son of German aristocrat Michael, played by Szilveszter Szabó, and Sándor György-Rózsa as Victor, a Prince disguised as a casino worker. All three are polished perfomers and the latter is the epitome of the kind of bari-tenor usually cast as a lead male in Broadway musicals requiring voices of steel.
18-year-yold Aisha Kardffy already displays bountiful comic talent as Claire, the clever young damsel trying to inveigle Karl to marry her instead of Sylva. As the American couple, Sam and Birdie Springer, Maté Miklós Kerényi and Szilvi Szendi excelled as the highly entertaining song & dance duo, especially in their inspired version of Kern’s “A Bungalow in Quogue” accompanied by actors in oversized pig and chicken suits (all costumes designed by Anni Füzér) to reflect the lyrics about leaving the city life and settling down on the farm. And, since the focal point of the theatre’s refurbishment was largely about upgrading the technical equipment that the audience doesn’t see, it must be stated that this show looked and sounded state-of-the-art — although I question the necessity of such heavy miking in such a tiny theatre. But kudos to the tech team.
Government puts its money where operetta is
“This is an historic moment,” said György Lörinczy, BOT’s general director. Hours prior to the performance, an opening ceremony took place in the theatre to serve as both a public christening and a tickler for the evening premiere.
The State Minister of Culture, Péter Hoppál, attended the opener and to my complete surprise, referenced Mozart’s opinion that composers should write light opera alongside more serious works. (Yours truly cannot imagine any present U.S. politician talking about Mozart – or even Leonard Bernstein – but I digress.) “One hundred years later, operetta appeared,” he continued, “and the Hungarian versions were examples of successful and passionate nights at the theatre. These shows will continue as our cultural heritage, with the Budapest Operetta’s leadership. May this theatre last for several more lifetimes!” (The Council of Budapest contributed 10% of the reconstruction costs, and BOT receives regular funding from the Hungarian government.)
Budapest’s Deputy Mayor Alexandra Szalay-Bobrovniczky expressed her delight in the newly renovated theatre’s “familial feel, and it’s obviously so loved — and it’s mutual.” She explained that, in her
experience, most renovation projects deal more with a building’s facade than the interior. In this case, “the [interior] function is more important than the [exterior] form.” She recounted the building’s history, starting with its birth as a cabaret, followed by decades of disrespect under a number of owners, and now BOT is the thankful owner. Szalay-Bobrovniczky praised its final incarnation: “It ended up [to be] so beautiful!”
And beautiful it is. The jewel-box theatre’s rosy-red Belle Epoque interior with white wedding cake friezes on the balcony boxes are beautifully preserved, as is the magnificent ceiling. KERO, the company’s long-time artistic director, called it “a versatile hall, in fact, the jewel of the country. It’s a place where we can experiment. Here, we can try new things that can’t be done on the main stage. We need this,” he continued. “And Budapest needs it too.” KERO also acknowledged two important people in the audience: Kálmán’s youngest daughter Yvonne, flown in from Mexico and who spoke to the audience; and collector Miller, flown in from Los Angeles. The bronze statue of composer Kálmán resting on a bench outside the BOT/Kálmán complex, is sporting a much bigger smile these days.