Review: Winter Opera's 'The Student Prince' is superb!

By: Nov. 16, 2017

Gina Galati's Winter Opera continues its tradition of stunning quality in its revival of Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince. This venerable and vastly popular operetta is filled with sentimentality, with nostalgia and with gorgeous melody.

Operetta, as a genre, arose in the 1850's and swelled into a widely beloved form of entertainment. In America its chief luminaries were Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, and Rudolf Friml. From the 1920's to the '40's the modern musical gradually drove operettas from the stage (except for the happily undying works of Gilbert & Sullivan). And I miss them!

The Student Prince is filled with songs that surely were among your grandparents' favorites-sweeping waltzes, songs of nostalgia, love songs and a beautiful serenade. There are rollicking students' songs praising drink and girls or irreverently mocking professors and classes and books. There's a rousing marching song. All of these are superbly performed in Winter Opera's production.

We watch as Crown Prince Karl Franz, of the fictional kingdom of Karlsberg, comes to Heidelberg to experience a year of student life at the university. It's a year of freedom before he returns to the court to engage in the sober affairs of state. With the prince comes his snooty "gentleman's gentleman," Lutz, who has his own "gentleman's gentlman's gentleman," Hubert. Also in the party, as a sort of advisor and chaperone, is the prince's kindly old tutor, Dr. Engle.

They take rooms at the Inn of the Three Golden Apples where they meet a carousing corps of student cadets and a chorus of flirtatious barmaids. Among these is Kathie, the inn-keeper's niece whom all the students adore.

Now Karl Franz has been betrothed since birth to Princess Margaret, a cousin whom he's never met. And Kathie has long been betrothed to a distant cousin in Vienna. But is it any surprise when at first sight Karl Franz and Kathie fall in love? Well, not in an operetta. After a gracefully choreographed first meeting where they seem almost afraid to get too close, the moment of their first kiss is deeply touching-almost weepingly satisfying for the audience. But that is as nothing compared to the profound poignancy in which their last kiss is awash! (Do take a hanky!)

The cast is uniformly excellent. Karl Franz is sung by Andrew Marks Maughan. Handsome and blond, he's the perfect Germanic prince. And he's blessed with a strong, clear tenor voice. Veteran John Stephens sings Dr. Engle with a wonderfully rich baritone. Stephens' performance is among the very finest in the whole production. He and Mr. Maughan are beautifully paired in two duets-"In Heidelberg Fair" and the sweetly flowing nostalgic "Golden Days."

The role of Kathie is sung by the lovely Caitlin Cisler. She's physically perfect for the role and she has such easy access to those very high notes. Her beautiful voice soars like a lark above the chorus. When she and the prince blend their voices in that grand old love waltz "Deep In My Heart, Dear" they make it a highlight of the evening. The lyric, "Our paths may sever, but I'll remember forever," foreshadows the bittersweet ending.

Gary Moss brings a strong baritone voice, wonderful comic talents and quite remarkable diction to the role of the prince's valet, Lutz. He, of the entire cast, is the one whose every syllable is clear as a bell. He triumphs in this role, and gets every laugh out of this very silly man. Such precision and confidence and grace!

Others in the cast deserve special praise: Princess Margaret (Ellen Hinkel) and her secret inamorato Captain Tarnitz (Ryan Keller) do wonderful work with "Just We Two"; Karla Hughes is a very bright presence as the tiny saucy barmaid, Gretchen. Zachary Devin, a lovely tenor, sings Detlef, the leader of the corps of cadets; he fills the role with bright vigor.

Stage Director Dean Anthony does a wizard's work in gracefully managing this large cast, the several settings, the crisply drilled corps of cadets, the grand ball aswirl with waltzing couples. And he ably plays the (non-singing) role of Count von Mark, the Prime Minister of Karlsberg.

Chorus Master Nancy Mayo draws splendid work from her female chorus of spirited bar-maids and from the male chorus of roistering cadets. The lovely old classic student song, "Gaudeamus Igitur," drifts in from afar with an almost ghostly stalwart vigor.

As usual, I was filled with awe at the sets by Scott Loebl-an elegant office at the palace; an inn's courtyard in Heidelberg with a gorgeous vast misty panorama of hills, a castle, a bridge; a truly grand ballroom with great arches and startlingly realistic perspective.

Costumer J.C. Krajicek has exceeded herself in providing the cast with (among all else) truly lavish ball gowns, crisply tailored cadets' uniforms, and colorful drndls for the barmaids. Kudos!

And Conductor Scott Schoonover gets quite lovely performances from his rather large orchestra.

Technically and vocally The Student Prince is among the very best works that I've seen at Winter Opera. My whole-hearted thanks go to sponsor Mary Pillsbury and the others who have given this beautiful gift to St. Louis audiences.

Now The Student Prince has a special place in my heart. Over sixty years ago I got my first taste of musical theatre playing Count von Mark in a high-school production and the melodies-and many of the lyrics-have never left me. (A few years ago I used "Gaudeamus Igitur" as an audition piece for Into the Woods.)

It is indeed an old-fashioned operetta. What is it doing in the program of a quite serious opera company? How can one embrace a sweet old chestnut like The Student Prince and yet also look forward excitedly to the strangest modern commissions of Opera Theatre of St. Louis or to the edgiest offerings of New Line? Well, I know one can. One should. One must! Feed your artistic soul a well-rounded diet. And that includes the popular past. There are such beauties there.

The Student Prince played on November 10 and 12 at the Skip Viragh Center in St. Louis.