Countess Maritza

Emmerich Kalman,
Budapest Operetta Theatre,
Sadler's Wells
(2004)

Publicity photograph from Countess maritza

It's reasonable to anticipate a bleak response from London critics to Budapest Operetta Theatre's lively revival at Sadler's Wells this week of Emmerich Kálmán's colourful Countess Maritza. Not only is this the surprisingly delayed and too brief first appearance in England of a company that has been everywhere else in Europe, it is also a rare London staging of that phenomenon of Central Europe, the operetta!

"Charming," conceded one veteran of the press corps, "but a dated show in a dated production." One might have used the same words to label our own National Theatre's magnificent Oklahoma! - or, for that matter, almost any grand opera together with all Shakespeare at the Globe.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for such uninhibited passion stems from my provincial roots. I prefer to describe Miklós-Gábor Kerényi's production Magyar Magic festival celebrating Hungary's membership of the EU as stirring, stylish and quite irresistible. Magyar Magic is all about spirit, something the Welsh call "hywell", the Germans "Lustigkeit" and the Hungarians "jókedrä". The absence of an equivalent English word speaks volumes.

Yet English feet at the Wells are tapping this week in time with those of visitors from Budapest in the audience who infuriatingly get the jokes faster than we can read the quaint surtitles. Yet not even the expat Hungarians can beat us to the tunes. Secret sessions with the BBC, Grand Hotel and Nights of Gladness, have given us at least an acquaintance with the infectious czardas and other delights of a melody-filled score that Kalman himself thought would be a loser.

There is certainly a touch of The Lady Vanishes and old Hitchcock about the Transalvanian setting for Act I. For a moment, the company appear to reflect our misgivings about their British enterprise Enter maestro Lásló Makláry and his 40 strong orchestra with Kalman's Magyar magic and soon we are thrilling to the strains of Zoltán Kiss's unbelievable tenor in the evergreen "Komm Zigán".

Before they moved on to Broadway and other sophisticated stages, operatic societies all over England were filling town halls with this sort of thing. Without the Magyar magic of "jokedrá" perhaps and definitely without the Hungarian dancing which is something else.

Some of the acrobatics in this production have not been seen here since Bertram Mills pulled down his tent, the sylph-like Lisa of Mara Kékkovács being a case in point. The finely-boned features and grace of Zsuzsa Kalocsai's Maritza might almost pass unremarked in the presence of that soaring soprano which thrives on the brilliant score.

Sometimes it is hard to tell where the singers end and the ballet begins. And designer Ágnes Gyarmathy has matched her sets with costumes for the ladies worthy of Ginger Rodgers.

Those who prefer their music small and neat might be better served elsewhere. Anyone, however, who is stirred by an eisteddfod or a male voice choir should make a beeline for Islington before it is too late. Evidently, Brussels is going to be a livelier place in future.

"Countess Maritza" runs until 12th June

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole