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Friml: The Vagabond King / Byess, Ohio Light Opera

Release Date: 01/25/2005 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 738/39   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Rudolf Friml
Performer:  Brian WoodsSandra RossJulie WrightPatrick Howle,   ... 
Conductor:  Steven Byess
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews


"Time passes; tastes change. Some might fear this gossamer tale of glib rogues and distressed damsels, set to a romantically lush score, would prove too cloying today. Thank goodness, therefore, for Ohio Light Opera, which for twenty-five years has devoted itself to the preservation and promotion of the traditional operetta repertoire. Their new two-disc Vagabond King is the first complete (well, tactfully trimmed) recording of this work. For that gift alone, we should be thankful. Though the sappy book defies resuscitation, conductor Steven Byess, with judicious variations of tempos and dynamics, extracts the melting melodies in Friml's score while muffling the treacle." - OPERA NEWS
Read more /> Full review from Fanfare magazine;:
At long last, a complete recording of a Rudolf Friml operetta! Widely known for their valuable series of complete recordings of operettas by Victor Herbert and Emmerick Kálmán (in translation), as well as the obscure backwaters of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, this is the Wooster, Ohio, based company’s first recording of a Friml show. It is not, however, their first Friml production, as they have performed Vagabond King previously and also mounted a successful run of Rose-Marie in 2003, a production not committed to records, sadly, since that is a more thoroughly original and indeed “American” show than the one at hand. As with other installments in their survey, complete dialogue is included, and it is a mixed blessing. Certainly there are some listeners who would rather not put up with it, as the occasional weakness of the writing and archness of the acting may glare upon repeated listening (in this case, the soporific sing-song of Brian Woods’s elocution as King Louis tried my patience the first time through). On the other hand, the dialogue does place the music in context and provides a feeling for how the piece works as musical theater. Friml placed a higher premium on the dramatic context of musical numbers than did some of his contemporaries, once writing, of Rose-Marie, “the musical numbers . . . are such an integral part of the action that we do not think we should list them as separate episodes.” Besides, if you wish, you can always program your CD player to skip the dialogue tracks.

Born in Prague, where he had studied at the conservatory, Friml had immigrated to the United States in 1906. He scored his first success in 1912 with The Firefly, following it up in 1913 with High Jinks and 1915 with Katinka. Based on a successful J. H. McCarthy play from 1901, If I Were King, The Vagabond King opened on September 21, 1925, at the Casino theater and ran for a whopping (for its time) 511 performances. The plot of this sprawling four-act drama, set during the reign of King Louis XI of France, concerns a lowborn poet and rogue named François Villon, who is in love with the noblewoman Katherine de Vauxcelles, and in turn is loved by the prostitute Huguette. In his favorite tavern, Villon claims that he would make a more effective military leader than the king himself in the coming war against Burgundy. Unfortunately, the king, who is also infatuated with Lady Katherine, has heard this boast directly, because at that very moment he and his spies had dropped in on the tavern. Rather than simply arresting him, the oily king challenges Villon to defeat the Burgundians as Grand Marshall of France and to win the hand of Katherine, both feats to be accomplished within the same 24-hour period. If he should fail, his life would be forfeit. Villon succeeds in defeating the enemy by whipping his vagabond supporters into a frenzy of patriotism, and the king’s subsequent attempt to assassinate him is foiled when Huguette steps in to take a fatal knife thrust aimed at her unattainable beloved. When Katherine hears that her suitor is the notorious thief Villon, she first rejects him, causing him to lose half the bargain and condemning him to death. But at the last moment she realizes she loves this swashbuckling admirer. He is released, and the two vow their mutual love.

Though Brian Hooker’s script is hackneyed and provides skimpy motivation for the characters, Friml’s score abounds in strong melodies, developed with his trademark subtlety and ear for minor mode and chromatic shadings. It is also a pleasure to hear these pieces stripped back to the understated accompaniments of the original theater orchestration, so that one can appreciate the composer’s sensitivity to color. Ohio Light Opera’s recording opens with a warmly played account of the overture—a much subtler and more carefully crafted piece than the Hollywoodized version captured by Decca—and one that benefits from the sweet-toned playing of concertmaster Lisa Dempsey, as well as a rousing foreshadowing of the growling “Song of the Vagabonds,” the most likely song to get embedded in your skull after just one hearing. The many lyric episodes of the score also speak more eloquently with a less garish adornment, notably the haunting exotic-tinged duet “Red Rose” and the famous “Love Me Tonight.” Particularly intriguing is the way this score straddles the gap between old-fashioned European operetta and the emergent syncopated edge of American popular song, a balance that conductor Steven Byess succeeds in striking and maintaining.

One particular joy of this recording is that we get to hear long-time Ohio Light Opera stalwart Ted Christopher in a leading romantic role. One of the most gifted singing actors in the standing troupe, he has often been relegated to character parts, where his ability to deliver the often severely dated dialogue with wit and proportion has been valuable even when it left one wishing that he had assumed a more central part. His incisive baritone is, however, ideally suited to the blustering role of Villon, crackling in the rousing minor-mode march of the “Song of the Vagabonds,” and generating a forceful presence in the many duet episodes granted his character. High in his range his voice can develop a throaty, covered quality, but this is a passing flaw in a satisfying performance.

Christopher is partnered with one of the long-established divas of the troupe, Julie Wright, who is also Ohio Light Opera’s general director. Her voice here sounds more worn and thinly produced than it has on some earlier recordings (Princess Ida, Bayadere), but it is still commanding and even, delicately lacing its way through the score’s many lyric moments and lending a quiet dignity to the aristocratic character of Lady Katherine.

Also worthy of mention is the commanding Huguette of Sandra Ross, whose smooth yet firm mezzo lends an absorbing dignity to the old stereotype of the prostitute with the heart of gold. Her character delivers the two most heartbreaking numbers of the operetta, “Love for Sale” and her waltz song, “Hearts May Flower.”

The rest of the cast is likewise first rate, including Patrick Howle’s swaggering Tabary, especially bumptious in the “Flagon of Wine” ensemble. Elsewhere, the pointedly Sullivanesque choruses are delivered with energy and style by the off-duty soloists of the troupe (the chorus of Ohio Light Opera is comprised of singers who are soloists on other nights). Even Brian Woods’s diffident Louis XI works as a sketch of this unsympathetic and spoiled monarch, who does not deserve the loyalty of Villon and his followers.

For me this has been a recording that has improved its welcome on repeated hearing, which is not something I have always felt comfortable saying about Ohio Light Opera performances. It is required listening for anyone interested in the development of American musical theater and is thus self-recommending.

Christopher Williams, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

The Vagabond King by Rudolf Friml
Performer:  Brian Woods (Tenor), Sandra Ross (Mezzo Soprano), Julie Wright (Soprano),
Patrick Howle (Baritone), Ted Christopher (Baritone), Gregory Brookes (Bass),
James Harr (Tenor), Shannon Langman (Mezzo Soprano), Drake Danzler (Tenor),
Nathan Brian (Tenor), Justin Legris (Tenor), Chris Lyons (),
Carl Bara ()
Conductor:  Steven Byess
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
Venue:  Live  Ohio Light Opera Festival 
Length: 44 Minutes 43 Secs. 
Language: English 
Notes: Ohio Light Opera Festival (06/2004 - 08/2004) 

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