Johann Strauss' "The Gypsy Baron" is about mistaken identities and lost treasures, about romance, and most of all about fun and gorgeous music. All of these and more were in full bloom as the Washington Civic Opera revived its production last weekend at Lisner Auditorium.
The cast was young and spirited, Richard Crittenden's direction overflowed with charm and wit without once degenerating into parody; and the orchestra, boasting several familiar faces from the National Symphony, left little to be desired. Richard Weilenmann's stern podium manner nicely balanced discipline and laughter, almost solving the acoustical problems that come with the Lisner's curious half-raised pit arrangement. If the ensemble sounded less and less rehearsed as the evening grew, the violins and the winds never ceased to sparkle and the spirit of song was never lost.
In the title role Gran Wilson was everything an operetta hero ought to be: very handsome, completely at ease on stage and always on pitch. In a world full of amateur operetta productions, these are things to cherish. His lyric tenor is not large, but his charms commanded attention and his timbre remained sweet throughout the evening. The men almost stole the show, actually. Philip Steele's rich bass and underplayed buffo antics made an irresistible figure out of Kalman Szupan, the proud overseer of 5,000 pigs and one daughter (one live pig almost stole a scene from him by joining in the singing in Act I). Frederick Davison, a young lyric baritone to watch, was a dashing Count Peter Homonay as he recruited prospective hussars and occasioned the score's only Viennese waltz. Edward Randall's lovely lyric tenor was a luxury in the secondary role of Ottokar, suitor to the pig farmer's daughter.
As the pride of the gypsy camp and the flower of the pig farm, respectively, Cynthia Miller and Elizabeth Kirkpatrick were both hooty but endearing. Despite a tendency to go sharp and wild on top, Miller's voice in particular had a thrilling ring that made the Baron's preference for the gypsy girl understandable. And that same thrill permeated the evening.
The Washington Civic Opera has found a very exciting way to present this repertory in English, and we can only look forward to next season's "Czardas Princess" and hope for, say, "Countess Maritza" and "The Bird Seller" in the near future.