> Opera and Oratorio
The Fortune Teller
Maples, Matthews; Kelleher-Flight, Falk, Moss, Walsh; Ohio Light Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Byess. Libretto. Albany, Troy 1326/27 (2)
Victor Herbert, composer, conductor and cellist, was a man of prodigious talent and inexhaustible creative stamina in a broad array of disciplines. But it is for his forty-three operettas, among them Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906)and Naughty Marietta (1910), that Herbert is best known today. Herbert's first unqualified smash hit in this genre, The Fortune Teller (1898), was originally created as a star vehicle for Tennessee-born soprano Alice Nielsen (1872–1943), an enormous box-office draw in New York and throughout North America. Nielsen had enjoyed such a career-making success in Herbert's The Serenade (1897) that she formed her own theater company. To attract Nielsen to the project, Herbert concocted a plot in The Fortune Teller that obliged his diva to fill three separate roles in the same production — Irma, a Budapest heiress; Irma's identical twin brother, Fedor (a trouser role, naturally); and Musette, a Gypsy fortune-teller. The obvious opportunities for mistaken-identity farce abound. More important, the plot requires the diva (via numerous costume changes) to remain onstage for almost the entire evening, which pleased Nielsen's formidable ego no end. Nielsen was not the only person pleased by the arrangement; audiences noisily cheered The Fortune Teller's Act II "Serenade of Nations," which became an instant hit. The Fortune Teller's success warranted a London company of the show in 1901, with Nielsen in the star spot.
The Fortune Teller orchestra parts and scores were retired from rental starting in the 1970s. As an unfortunate result, for more than forty years The Fortune Teller has teetered on the brink of extinction. To redress this slight, Ohio Light Opera has released a two-CD recording of The Fortune Teller using the original score and based on the company's 2011 production. (This resuscitation per se is not unique; the Comic Opera Guild of Ann Arbor has released a 2011 two-CD concert-version set [CFT08O-2C]). But OLO makes a strong argument for giving the long-ignored Fortune Teller a second look. Lacking as it does the overriding modernist irony of Gilbert and Sullivan's best works, an operetta such as The Fortune Teller risks devolving into quaint cuteness and camp. OLO nicely avoids this danger, bringing just the right amount of restrained humor and respect to this nostalgic production. A star vehicle needs a star, and OLO has one in Amy Maples. Maples's soprano is supple and rich, her pitch true, her diction and comic timing spot-on. She manages to assay her three characters, Irma, Fedor and Musette, with such vividness that the listener never has a doubt as to which character she is portraying at a given time.
All the vocal performances of Maples's talented fellow performers are equally winning, particularly that of mellifluous David Kelleher-Flight (Sandor), who knocks the Act II gem "Gypsy Love Song" out of the park. Conductor Steven Byess judiciously mines the charms of Herbert's unjustly neglected score while eliminating the treacle. As usual, the OLO chorus sings with enthusiastic charm, especially in the Act I ensemble (with a glorious Musette) "Romany Life."
TODD B. SOLLIS