Cher Public

Where have all the bubbles gone?

Susan Stroman’s relatively new Metropolitan Opera production of Lehar’s The Merry Widow translated well to Lyric Opera of Chicago when I attended Tuesday night, the second performance of the run.

Visually, it was a dream. Julian Crouch’s genuinely beautiful sets, enhanced by soft pastel lighting by Paule Constable, were ravishing, from the first act embassy to Hanna’s garden party, complete with fireworks, to act three’s colorful Maxim’s. William Ivey Long’s costumes were sumptuous and magnificent. Stroman’s choreography was magical, from the waltzes to the delightful dancing of the grisettes and their men at Maxim’s. There was an explosion of color and high spirits

But, alas, as a whole, the evening seemed forced and a bit dispiriting, because it lacked really human characters with a heart between the visual splendor and sight gags. It seemed that everyone on the stage was working waaay too hard to be funny, to be charming, to be witty. The first act was particularly underpowered vocally and dramatically, the second act picked up a bit, but only in the third act, where Stroman’s high energy choreography was executed brilliantly, did we begin to feel the love that underpins Lehar’s frothy concoction.

The title role of Hanna Glawari should be an excellent fit for superstar soprano Renée Fleming as she begins to wind down her operatic performances. But, outside of some splendid high Gs in the “Vilja” song, her voice has lost much of its creamy luster. Except for her top notes, she was frequently inaudible, especially in the first act, and it was only in her third act “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden,”,= interpolated here from Lehar’s Paganini, that she resembled her former self with beautiful phrasing and sensitive vocalism.

There is now a hollowness in the middle voice, and she is singing with a carefulness that may preserve her voice but is just not exciting. Fleming’s acting seemed vacant and hard-edged. This wasn’t a very merry widow. That being said, she looked gorgeous in Long’s gowns, danced with aplomb, and finally found a bit of chemistry with Thomas Hampson’s Danilo in the final act.

The baritone was the star of the evening, except for his drunk acting in the first act that fell rather flat. But as the debonair Count Danilo, he reeked of charm and class. The role suits his current vocal estate, and he sang with beauty and power while displaying ample comic abilities, despite some major clunkers in Jeremy Sams’ English translation.

As the “secondary” pair of lovers, Heidi Stober as Valencienne (the flirtatious wife of Baron Zeta of Pontevedro) and Michael Spyres as her would-be lover Camille de Rosillion turned in some of the best singing of the evening, though here, too, the passion and chemistry never quite came off. But Stober surprised with some amazing dance skills in Act three, and Spyres poured out his luscious tenor with ease and brilliance.

Patrick Carfizzi did well as Baron Zeta, and was rather moving in the final act as he forgave his wife her indiscretions. Actor Jeff Dumas as Njegus boasted strong physical comedy skills, but he, too, seemed to be working too hard to get laughs. Paul La Rosa and particularly Jonathan Johnson did a fine job as Hanna’s suitors Cascada and St. Brioche.

Sir Andrew Davis led his own delightful overture with aplomb and urged all the sentiment and romantic beauty from the Lyric Opera Orchestra; the always-excellent Lyric Opera Chorus was crisp and precise throughout. But the highest honors go to Stroman and her dancers, especially in the remarkable choreography that covered the set change from act two to act three, with high spirits, high kicking, and even a grisette descending from the flies on wires!

What this production fails to understand is the sadness and longing that lies under all the frothy frivolity. The surface of the performance was there, dancing and singing and (too much) mugging and all, but the humanity that could have made this a lovely evening was just absent.

Photos: Todd Rosenberg

  • javier

    Who wrote this review. Renee Fleming did not sing any high Gs in The Merry Widow. Of course her voice has lost some luster, since she’s not singing Lucrezia Borgia and this is not 1998.

    • calaf47

      “Vilia” is in the key of G. The G’s the reviewer is referring to are there in the score….not the G’s above high C.Ms Fleming can barely manage the interpolated high D at the end of the 2nd act.

      • LT

        Those are middle Gs, then.

        • tiger1

          For anybody who knows just an inkling about either Merry Widow or Ms Fleming, it is OBVIOUS what kind of Gs the reviewer are referring. So I find Javier’s comment just laughable. And, LT, nobody would refer to the Gs in question as “middle Gs”; nobody, that is, apart from you.

  • Porgy Amor

    Thank you, Henson. A judicious review.

    it was only in her third act “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden,”,= interpolated here from Lehar’s Paganini, that she resembled her former self with beautiful phrasing and sensitive vocalism.

    I didn’t know that aria before I saw the Met version of this in HD, and I thought at first it was going to turn into “I Concentrate On You.”

    • That’s Hampson’s interpolation.

      • Porgy Amor

        Fortune cried “Nay-Nay!” to him.

  • CarlottaBorromeo

    I find myself wondering more and more whether this piece makes any dramatic sense with such aged performers in the leading roles… The original Danilo and Hanna were 33 and 26 -- ages which make much more sense of the story…

    It’s a little like the 53-year-old Hvorostovsky singing Onyegin at Covent Garden next month -- with a 30-year-old Tatyana the situation becomes dramatically distasteful…

    • The issue is not so much in the music and lyrics but in the spoken dialogue. The Met’s current version has Hanna referred to as a “farm girl” who caught the fancy of the elderly Glawari who then dropped dead on their wedding night. So we are left with several possiblities:

      a) Hanna was an old maid working on the farm in her 40s, or

      b) Hanna’s marriage and bereavement took place around 25 years ago and she is just now getting around to looking for another husband, or

      c) Hanna is a young woman in her 20s.

      With a middle-aged Hanna, c) is impossible and the other two are unattractive. So in that case the dialogue needs to be changed, at least to the point of leaving the length of Hanna’s marriage an open question. We could then assume that Hanna wed at around age 20 and was widowed a couple of decades later. Again, the piece doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if Hanna has been a widow for more than a few years: after a couple of seasons without any obvious movement toward marriage, suitors would give up on her as a hopeless case.

      I think there is actually something very sweet and moving about the Hanna-Danilo relationship being between two middle-aged people, the sense that they have squandered many years and that this might be the last chance either of them has for happiness.

      • Porgy Amor

        I do too, La Cieca. My date and I talked to some people milling around between acts at the HD, and one woman (new to The Merry Widow) said she liked it for that reason. She said that so many of the Met operas she had seen were about young people falling in love at first sight, all hormones and lightning bolts. She liked this one for a change because the people were older and had a history together and were well suited to each other but stubborn, and she was enjoying watching them trying to get out of their own way. That has certainly been a winning formula in countless films, books, and plays.

    • tiger1

      CarlottaBorromeo, you do know that opera is about make-believe, right? So even if Mr Hvorostovsky is 53, I doubt that he is performing his Onegin as being 23 years older than his Tatyana (although some age difference is warranted).

      In addition, the current CG production of Onegin was made for Simon Keenlyside who must also have been around 53 at the time he sang it. Probably because Mr Keenlyside and Ms Stoyanove hardly looked like the young lovers (although both -- in my view -- fine looking singers), the production had younger actors performing the parts of Onegin and Tatyana at occasion so a bit like the older Onegin and Tatyana thinking back. So I have difficulty in seeing what is so distasteful. Well, maybe Ms Car being too young? (c;