Prague reclaims a long-banned jazz operetta

Prague reclaims a long-banned jazz operetta


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2022

A review by Alexander Goldscheider, exclusive to Slipped Disc:

Prague State Opera continues its remarkable Musica non grata project with a revival of the Paul Abraham operetta Ball in Savoy. Its original Berlin premiere on the 23 December 1932 was a huge success, alas short lived as a result of Hitler becoming a Chancellor five weeks later. In spite of rave reviews, the fact that the Hungarian composer Paul Abraham was Jewish, as were the librettists Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda, plus the impresarios Alfred and Fritz Rotter, led to the show’s closure on April 2, 1933.

It was then somewhat paradoxically premiered on September 9, 1933 by the New German Theatre in Prague under music director George Szell, successor in the post to the long-serving Alexander Zemlinsky. The New German Theatre is nowadays the State Opera

On September 16, 2022, virtually 89 years on, Prague public could revisit Ball in Savoy in the same, recently redecorated building. The production is just as lavish and performed with gusto, conducted by Jan Kučera. The orchestra clearly very much enjoys the jazzy score with its quirky orchestration, classic operetta melodies, a mixture of equally classic dances with South American ones, all on a spectacular set by Hans Hoffer lit by Jan Dörner as if there was no energy crisis whatsoever, and in haute-couture costumes by Georges Vafias.

The dynamic stage direction of Martin Čičvák would be even more riveting if the excellent Czech translation by Vlasta Reitererová was subjected to a few cuts, especially in the third act, but the public seemed to enjoy every moment and happily clapped along at times to catchy tunes. They were universally excellently performed by a strong cast of opera singers, who had no problem switching styles from the likes of Zerlina or Queen of the Night, as Doubravka Součková, or whose night was one the very first in their careers, such as the young Daniel Matoušek, who practically stole the show, as if he was at the height of his career. Jiří Hájek and Barbora Řeřichová left nothing to be desired of the main characters quartet, with a sexy Linda Caridad Fernandez Saez, who danced as if Abraham wrote the music for her moves. The extravagantly colourful set and costumes coupled with exuberant singing and dancing made one feel at times as if being on Broadway or in West End.

What is to be appreciated above all is the entire complex project of “unwelcome music” that started in 2020 and brought so far unique concerts and operas as much as research into pre-war Czech and German composers, mostly Jewish, whose careers and lives were destroyed by the Nazis.

The State Opera used to lag behind the near sacred National Theatre under socialism, and the trend continued after the Velvet revolution. Many of the productions were shabby in all respects, but the major three-year and 51 million Euros overhaul put an end to all that. Its re-opening in 2020 coincided with the Musica non grata project and it could not be a more symbiotic achievement. Schönberg’s Erwartung, Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, Schulhoff’s Flammen, Weinberg’s Kaddish, Weinberger’s Švanda dudák– these are not just the titles that do honour to the victims, but valid and needed productions for nowadays public.


  • RW2013 says:

    We’ve had it in the Hauptstadt for years.

  • rentayenta says:

    I saw a production of Walter Felsenstein’s Schlaue Fuechsleinin the shabby old State Theater in Prague. Also had lunch in the even then vibrant Jewish community center.

  • Wahlberliner says:

    There’s nothing remarkable about this project at all. It’s a straight up copy, with almost the same repertoire, of what Barrie Kosky has been doing at the Komische Oper in Berlin for over a decade now. I’m glad all these works are being put on in Prague, but there’s really no need for parochial triumphalism about the fact.

  • MacroV says:

    The State Opera building had definitely seen better days when I lived in Prague a few years ago, and a renovation is great. But all three theaters – State Opera, National, and Estates – are all operated as one big company.

    I love opera in Prague; it’s almost like a public utility – not a lot of headline-grabbing, star-driven productions, and quality isn’t always stellar, but it’s always there, and a lot of operas you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

  • Siegfried says:

    I have seen Ball in Savoy at the Komische Oper in Berlin in a Barrie Kosky production. That is as enjoyable an evening as you are ever going to spend in a theatre. A work that deserves to be seen more widely. Well done to Prague for staging it.

  • Glynne Williams says:

    Wonderful that these long-neglected pieces are being performed after so many years! Hats off to Prague State Opera. No doubt there’s a huge amount more still to discover….

  • Angela Giblin says:

    I attended performances at the Tyl/State and National Theatres, of Don Giovanni and Fibich’s Šárka, in Prague in the 70s. Very special. I’d love to see and hear some of the musica non grata.