Fathom Events' "Merry Widow": Met Lite

Kelli O'Hara & Alek Shrader in "The Merry Widow"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

             Screened at Regal Cinemas Kingston; Encore presentation Wed. Jan. 21 @ 6:30pm

Composer Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” was a crossover triumph long before the term was even coined, gracing operatic and musical comedy stages. When this critic first saw this work at the Theatre am der Vien some forty years ago, it was in fact performed very much like a musical comedy, with the singers bowing after every number. Its premiere was also in Vienna, in 1905, and, fittingly, it was the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve offering this year, in all its effervescent splendor. As its Librettist Victor Léon declared, this operetta was “not caviar for the people; it’s purpose was to serve as entertainment, pure and simple”. Here in its new English translation, from the original German, by Jeremy Sams (who also conceived and translated the Met’s recent “The Enchanted Island” as well as “Die Fledermaus”), it has appropriately updated lyrics , for example, the rhyming of “chantoozies” with “floozies”. This production boasts the work of Broadway’s Susan Stroman, (winner of five Tony Awards), as both Director and Choreographer, important in a work such as this that highlights several forms of dance (the waltz in first act, the traditional Slavic folk dance the kulo in the second, and of course the can-can in the third). As Conducted by Andrew Davis, this was a joyous romp.

The setting was Paris, filled with diplomats from the mythical Balkan nation of Pontevedro (thinly based on Montenegro). The Pontevedrian envoy (baritone Thomas Allen) wishes to keep in his country the hefty taxes paid by widow Hanna Glawari (soprano Renée Fleming at this performance, to be played by mezzo Susan Graham in April and May) by setting her up with Count Danilo (baritone Nathan Gunn). What the envoy doesn’t know is that they were romantically involved long ago but are now apart. A subplot involves the ingenue Valencienne (soprano Kelli O’Hara, five-time Tony nominee), a dancer or grisette at the famous cabaret Maxim’s, pursued by the French aristocrat Camille de Rossillon (tenor Alek Shrader). The action takes place to the accompaniment of some of the loveliest and most approachable music ever written. While the best known aria is the folk song “Vilja”, this production also features a solo taken from another Lehar work, “Paganini”.

To evoke an Epoque this Belle requires a host of gifted craftspeople. These would include Set Designer Julian Crouch, Costume Designer Broadway veteran William Ivey Long (making his Met debut with gorgeous work), and Lighting Designer Paule Constable (though, as is often the case with the Met, one could wish for more illumination and less darkness. The operetta itself provides a great deal of enlightenment, especially due to the always dependable Met Opera Chorus, under Chorus master Donald Palumbo, providing support and color.

There were several standouts in this production. First and foremost of course is the titular soprano, with Fleming offering a nice edginess to the often overly sugary role; too much schlage can make for too sweet a widow (especially since the original title is Die Lustige Witwe). She sang beautifully, as one might expect in a role carefully chosen as she winds down her illustrious career. What one doesn’t necessarily expect is that O’Hara is equally at home with this frothy world of delirious high notes and delicious low humor. This is in part the work of Sams with his versatile translation (such as “fan fatale”). Then there’s the marvelously adroit Gunn, no stranger to the musical comedy world as well as opera, and the exciting new discovery tenor Alek Shrader, with boyish good looks and the best voice on this stage. And who could forget the hilarious antics of theatrical veteran, actor Carson Elrod, as the jesting Njegus? But the true star of this excellent production, hands (and feet) down, was Stroman, whose helming was witty and whose choreography and movement direction was on view everywhere. It’s an extraordinary debut.

Some were critical of the use of so much dialogue in such a huge house as the Met. This was certainly no problem in the HD broadcast, which may in fact have provided a better venue than the Met itself. And if you were unfortunate enough to miss it, you’re in luck; you’ll find all the merriment repeated this coming Wednesday at a theater near you. It’s a delightful way to start off the HD broadcast New Year.

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