After a somber tribute, Lyric Opera serves up an elegant and exuberant “Merry Widow”
The horrific events that took place 24 hours earlier in Paris had the potential for making the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening-night performance of The Merry Widow–set in the same city–seem irrelevant and almost insensitive in the wake of such a tragedy.
Lyric finessed the dissonance Saturday night with general director Anthony Freud making a brief curtain speech and asking the audience to stand for a performance of the “Marseillaise” in honor of the French people and the victims of Friday night’s terrorist attacks. At the close of the Lyric Opera Orchestra’s stirring performance, the shouts of “Viva France!” were heartfelt and spontaneous.
For all its irresistible melodic appeal, Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow is not an easy work to pull off, with its challenging mix of romantic intrigue, soaring set pieces, and broad comedy. Under the operetta’s frothy satire, there is a vein of aching sadness—personified especially in the Merry Widow waltz itself—and a nostalgia for the wealth and glories of the Habsburg Empire, which was fading in the distance even as Die lustige Witwe premiered in 1905.
That essential strain of fin de siècle melancholy was missing in action in Lyric’s high-energy staging, which–with four American principals–was sturdily anchored on this side of the Atlantic.
Susan Stroman’s production received largely unfavorable notices when it debuted with Renée Fleming in the title role at the Metropolitan Opera last New Year’s Eve. But it’s hard to find much fault with this colorful staging as mounted by Lyric. Indeed, with Fleming and Thomas Hampson leading an inspired cast, a lavish production, and some exhilarating dance sequences, Lyric Opera’s Merry Widow makes an undeniably lively and dazzling show.
Julian Crouch’s set offers striking visual eye candy from the towering Pontevedrian Embassy to Hanna’s moonlit garden. Jeremy Sams’ English translation proved surprisingly deft, faithful and witty with few real groaners (though rhyming “chantoozies” and “floozies” came close).
The only questionable liberty came with inserting an extra aria for Fleming at the end, “Whenever I’m lost or lonely,” borrowed from Lehár’s Paganini. Purists may object but Merry Widow isn’t exactly Gurrelieder. The interpolated paean to love gives an extra moment in the sun for the star as well as adding a bit of welcome resonance to the final scene that it could use.
As the wealthy and glamorous Hanna Glawari, Fleming looked gorgeous in William Ivey Long’s spectacular gowns and proved an elegant and assured presence throughout, throwing off her one-liners well, parrying with Hampson’s Danilo gracefully, and even gamely indulging in a bit of Terpsichorean footwork. It’s manifestly clear why Fleming’s Hanna is the belle of the Pontevedrian embassy (in addition to her 20 million francs).
Vocally, Lyric Opera’s creative consultant proved more of a mixed blessing. Fleming’s once-resplendent soprano is now a more slender and unevenly focused instrument with a hollow quality in the middle of her voice. In her opening number and faster selections, Fleming’s singing often turned inaudible with clarity of words a sometime thing. Even “Vilja” didn’t quite come off, sounding thin of tone, tentative and shaky. The interstiched Paganini aria provided Fleming’s finest singing of the evening, more assured and fluent with greater depth of feeling.
The Act 3 appearance of the vocalized waltz didn’t have the climactic romantic frisson it should Saturday night but Fleming and Hampson, longtime friends and colleagues, displayed wonderful rapport as the dueling old-new couple.
Hampson was born to play the role of Danilo, Hanna’s cynical former flame. The baritone was fully credible as the work-averse and marriage-phobic bachelor who would rather hang out with the slatternly grisettes at Maxim’s than settle down. Hampson’s voice had some dry tonal moments as well, but he brought the right romantic sensibility to the waltz-song, and was a versatile and energetic presence, as engaged in the comedy and dancing as the vocalism.
The secondary pair of lovers proved just as well matched and more vocally consistent. Making her Lyric debut as Valencienne, Baron Zeta’s flirtatious “respectable wife,” was Heidi Stober. She didn’t project sufficiently in the early going but quickly found her footing vocally and otherwise. Stober sang with a clear and youthful soprano and was an engaging personality, showing some impressive dance moves with the grisettes in Act 3.
As her inamorata, Michael Spyres made a notably ardent Camille. A fine Alfred in Lyric’s Fledermaus two seasons ago, the tenor was also equally assured with the comedy and singing. His richly sung Act II aria, delivered with a ringing high C, provided the closest thing to idiomatic Viennese operetta style of the evening.
The several comprimario roles of the large cast were well taken, adding to the sense of ensemble theatrical enjoyment.
Patrick Carfizzi was a superb (if decidedly youthful) Baron Zeta, scheming to keep Hanna’s millions in the Pontevendrian coffers and clueless about his wife Valencienne’s philandering. Paul de Rosa and Jonathan Johnson, as Cascada and Brioche, were worthy as Hanna’s bourgeois rival suitors. Jeff Dumas provided many of the evening’s laughs, as a genuinely amusing Njegus.
The principal grisettes at Maxim’s proved charismatically sexy and accomplished dancers, namely Ariane Dolan (Lolo), Alison Mixon (Dodo), Emily Pynenburg (Jou-Jou), Annelise Baker (Frou-Frou), Jen Gorman (Clo-Clo) and Catherine Hamilton (Margot).
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman is best known for her audacious and inventive production of Mel Brooks’ megahit Broadway musical, The Producers. If there’s nothing as original or wickedly funny here as her chorus line of walker-wielding elderly women from that show, Stroman’s choreography was tight and exuberant, and her direction moved the action at a smart, crackling pace. The onstage set change from Hanna’s garden to Maxim’s was a terrific piece of stagecraft by any measure.
Michael Black’s chorus members sang with ideally balanced robustness and refinement. Andrew Davis pointed the waltz rhythms affectionately with Viennese lilt and brought fine vitality to the dance numbers, drawing gleaming playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra.
The Merry Widow runs through December 13. Nicole Cabell sings the role of Hanna Glawari December 9, 11 and 13. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.