THE DUCHESS OF CHICAGO, Light Opera Works, at Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University. Written in 1928 by Emmerich Kalman, this late-blooming Viennese operetta offers a chance to see ourselves as others saw us. Condemned as “decadent music” by the Nazis, The Duchess of Chicago depicts the tempestuous romance of Mary Lloyd, the filthy-rich heiress of the “Sausage King of Chicago,” and Sandor Boris, an impecunious Balkan prince. Mary loves the Charleston. Sandor prefers the waltz. She buys his summer palace, but he refuses to be part of a package deal. Happily, Kalman’s music brings them together–in a compromise fox-trot.
It’s disconcerting to see how aggressive American wealth seemed to far poorer Weimar audiences. But where Kurt Weill churned such differences into proletarian protest, Kalman–a genteel product of Vienna’s silver age–gently acknowledged the cultural imperialism of American jazz. His second-act attempt to reconcile the Charleston with the czardas is a stunning case of musical wishful thinking.
Buoyed by a sprightly new translation by Light Opera Works artistic director Philip A. Kraus and Chicago composer Gregg Opelka, this is an operetta worth reclaiming. Though no great lost gem, The Duchess of Chicago charms with its quaint mix of vaudevillian novelty numbers and shimmering waltzes. Set off by Kraus’s lyrical staging are Debra Rentz’s plutocratic flapper and Mark James Meier’s ardent Sandor–and a chorus who turn Todd Michael Kiech’s Old World/New World choreography into a thrilling, culture-clashing dance-off. –Lawrence Bommer