Cher Public

Angel of the mourning

If it ain't brocade, don't fix it.

If it ain’t brocade, don’t fix it.

The most distinct pleasure of The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera was the polished, yet warm, performance of Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari. Her cultivated, gathered mezzo caressed each phrase of Lehar’s sentimental score. She sounded as fresh and effortless as when she debuted at the house in the early 90s. While her spoken dialogue was not nearly as natural in its production, Graham still managed a folksy, relaxed approached to the role. 

However, though Graham’s singing was lovely, it was probably the lone reason to advocate for a revival of Susan Stroman’s production from early 2015. The operetta, a lighthearted concoction about a wealthy widow pursued by money-grubbing suitors, registered as a minor work. It felt more appropriate for a Broadway theater than the operatic stage. I’m not trying to be pejorative. Minor works and minor composers can often yield great pleasure and wisdom. For example: Barber, Copeland, and Gershwin. Lovely artists—genius, even—though minor in the operatic repertory.

Graham often does well in this intimate sphere. One thinks of her early recordings of Reynaldo Hahn and Ned Rorem. She is sensitive, expressive, and musically astute, giving attention to the most minor (pun intended) details.

But do minor works, such as The Merry Widow, thrive at the Met? I think it depends on the piece. And The Merry Widow rides a fine line, mostly because of its intimate qualities and copious dialogue. As Anthony Tommasini rightly asserted in his review in the NYT when the production premiered: “To make an operetta like this work in a house the size of the Met, compromises are required. It should not be surprising that the result seems compromised.”

On Thursday night, Graham’s artistry, as stellar as it was, could not sustain the evening. Despite the earnestness of the production, there was a forced, stiff quality throughout the proceedings. To begin with, the dialogue did not fare well in the larger house, especially when performed by opera singers. And the schism between the style of The Merry Widow and the physical space it was presented in chilled any warmth and exuberance generated by the piece. Even the vivacious Grisettes, dancing the can-can and doing splits, couldn’t shake off the evening’s robotic, lifeless quality.

But it wouldn’t be fair to place all the blame on a mismatch between venue and style. Lehar’s score is charmingly evergreen; this was especially apparent when conducted by Ward Stare (gracefully making his debut). Some responsibility should be assigned to Stroman’s production, which felt stagnate and rudimentary, nostalgic to the extreme. It refused to do anything more than what was completely expected.

This may be, in part, due to the belle-époque sets, which looked stale and cheap; they exacerbated the sense that things were thrown together (though, this frugal, haphazard quality was counteracted by William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes). And the direction’s tone and style were very old—out of touch—a tough mistake to make when one is working with such nostalgic material.

For example, Carson Elrod, as Njegus, turned in one of the more bizarre performances I’ve seen on the Met’s stage. He pranced around like a closeted homosexual, and his stereotypical hijinks had an uncomfortable tinge of queer minstrelsy. It wasn’t funny; it was very 90s.

Paul Groves, as Hanna’s romantic interest Danilo, seemed unprepared. The unfortunate consequence of displaying subtitles for spoken English dialogue was that the audience knew when the performers forgot a line or two. While Groves was not the only one to make this type of mistake, his flubs were the most grievous; he left out bits of information central to the plot. His singing was adequate, if tentative—his main preoccupation appeared to be getting through the night.

In contrast, Sir Thomas Allen was charismatic as Baron Mirko Zeta. His command of the stage was undeniable, even in the role of a blundering aristocrat.

As his faithless wife Valencienne, Andriana Chuchman delivered all the coquettish charm desired. She, more so than the rest of the cast, handled the demands of the spoken dialogue with wit and ease. And her warm, even soprano offered additional reasons for admiration.

As her lover, Camille, David Portillo was suave, romantic, and sweetly guileless in all the right ways. His tenor floated through the score, reassuringly secure through the higher tessitura.

Which is to say, the performances were generally competent. But one wondered to what end. A large question mark hung in the air—what was the point? The evening bored me. It felt tired. Beyond the vibrancy of Graham’s voice, everything else rolled forward, perfunctory and tedious. There was a lack of urgency, a lack of vitality. Whether this was due to the production, the material’s unsuitability for the house, or a combination of both—it was hard to tell. In the end, did it even matter? The results were, nevertheless, the same.

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

  • Regarding the question of “what’s the point?”, I know this production sold very well in its debut season with Fleming. I don’t know how well it has sold this season. It’s not my cuppa either (I found the PBS broadcast of the original intermittently enjoyable at most) but I assume the point of it is to draw in a audience who might not go to the opera frequently but who can be enticed in with Broadway-type fare. I don’t know if this strategy has paid off but I think that’s the intent.

    • NineDragonSpot

      Perhaps the Met could launch another joint production with the Bolshoi for Shostakovich’s real-estate operetta Moskva, Cherëmushki. Jared Kushner could be given a walk-on role.

  • Camille

    Would you want to drink a flute of champagne handed to you from two years ago? That’s what this is similar to and the champagne was of the brut variety in the first instance.

    “Despite the earnestness of the production”….but that’s exactly the problem, as I see it! The Merry Widow is supposed to be just that—MERRY! Instead, it is the earnest path to the hell of well-intentioned efforts.

    Make mine la Veuve Clicquot instead.
    I’ll take a magnum.

  • Countessa Salome

    I think it sold well in 2015 thanks to Fleming and O’Hare. I just remember thinking how Cheesey and semi dull it was, even while trying to bring a Broadway flare. I think it’s time to move on from this production personally. Wasn’t the MET suppose to do Candide with Kristen Chenoweth a while ago? Now that would sell a little bit.

  • Porgy Amor

    Speaking only with experience of the broadcast of the 2014-15 one, I thought Elrod succeeded against tough odds. There’s a lot of leeway with Njegus — I’ve seen him done old and doddering; I’ve seen him young; I’ve seen him made the smartest person in the story, etc. Here they went with an old joke, the queeny guy who incongruously lusts after women. But Elrod is an energetic actor who brought charm and something a little subversive to it. To me, he was one of the assets of the production, along with Allen, O’Hara (premiere run only), the choreography, and (pace PCJ) Crouch’s sets, which I thought were really lovely old-school work. I’ve enjoyed Crouch’s other Met work that I have seen too (Satyagraha and The Enchanted Island; I missed Doctor Atomic).

    I had a better time at that broadcast than parterre box circa 2015 had me expecting I would. So, I’d see it again with a different cast. I’d still wince through a lot of Sams’s lowbrow dialogue, the worst thing about it.

  • Niel Rishoi

    Eh, one should see the Lubitsch film with MacDonald and Chevalier to see how it is done. Continental, edgy, sophisticated, witty…yes, I know it is not the stage operetta, but more the spirit and approach taken.

  • Ivy Lin

    Hmm. NYCO put on IMO a very charming version and the State Theatre is not this tiny jewel-box venue either. I think it’s more lack of idiomatic style.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pUtRjDx2k8

    • La Cieca

      I hated that production. An earlier version with Beverly Sills and Alan Titus was quite charming though.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gL0nWpzvFjw

      • MisterSnow

        I remember this one. It originated in San Diego and had excellent new English lyrics (and book?) by Sheldon Harnick. Sills had started her career touring in Schubert productions of operetta and had a great sense of the style.

    • Tamerlano

      The production is cheap looking but the Hanna (Jane Thorngren?) sings quite beautifully…her voice had great float in the upper reaches which I think really suits the music AND because she was a dancer in a former life she really danced the crap out of the can can.

  • Henry Strouss

    This is the first time I thought a Met production was AWFUL. When they do and Operetta in a Major Europe House it is conducted by the principal conductor with the best singers. This one featured second rate or over the hill performers.( Except Thomas Allen) Try this
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDscJg_SS8E

    • PCally

      How many met productions have you seen? This one is bad but the Fledermaus is in a different league entirely

      • Porgy Amor

        I thought, with the comment about the cast, maybe he meant “this production as mounted on this occasion,” rather that the bones of the thing as it might potentially have been presented. Because on that level, the production wasn’t even the worst one to debut in the 2014-15 season at the Met. I sat through La donna del lago wondering how someone had gone to Santa Fe and said, “Yeah, this’ll work for us. This is Met-worthy.”

        • DonCarloFanatic

          It didn’t even work in Santa Fe. Lame and confusing production.

        • PCally

          Yeah at least that production had first rate performances (mostly). I agree though, the production was… well, was there even a production.

    • Bill

      Henry -- some of the major opera houses in Europe do present Die Csardasfuerstin of Kalman which as one can hear in the truly fun concert performance you have
      posted here from Dresden requires truly operatic voices.
      I always likened and thought that Netrebko in looks and voice was ideal for this type of operetta. I have seen
      Csardasfuersten some 18 times, usually in the continental operetta houses, Budapest Operetta, Prague Karlin, Vienna Volksoper, Bucharest Operetta, Szeged, Temesvar,
      Debrecen almost always done with flare and very good singers. Dresden also has an operetta house as I believe
      does Moscow, Baden Wien. The Countess Maritza of Kalman is equally melodious and I believe was done once or twice in Santa Fe with success. The operettas of Romberg,
      Friml and Victor Herbert are rarely given in Europe save for some Friml in Prague and the Student Prinz once in a while in Heidelberg. But some musicals such as My Fair Lady
      (actually an operetta) and West Side Story appear everywhere in European houses. I have seen West Side
      Story in German, Hungarian, Romanian and Czech.
      Great to see Thielemann having such fun in Dresden.

  • Willym

    I say this in way to disparage Miss Graham or any of her predecessors in the role but I find it interesting that in many recent productions Hanna is played by a more “mature” singer. Mizzi Günther was 26 when she created the role in 1905 and Lily Elsie was 21 when she sang it in 1907. I’m not sure how it is performed in Europe these days but there seems to be a belief in North America at least that because she’s a widow she must be of a “certain” age.

    • Niel Rishoi

      Exactly. I have posted this clip on here before, but it warrants a repeat posting in the context of this discussion. These two are young, beautiful of selves, voice, and manner, and they impart a touching, romantic, and poignant semblance. It is so very right, and you think, this is the way The Merry Widow should be, but what it often isn’t. This operetta so often goes more wrong than right, what with awkward delivery, unease with the idiom, and let’s face it, aging stars give a sense that they, too, aren’t really up to this heady, frothy kind of piece. It more often seems forced, contrived, and worse, effortful. These two, though, “correct” all that -- and the shot of the swaying older couple makes it all the more touching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZsVSYhhHGw

    • Porgy Amor

      But that has been the trend with several roles. The first Marschallin was 31-year-old Margarethe Siems. We occasionally do still get young Marschallins (Amanda Majeski in recent times), but the role became a favorite for sopranos who were further along in life and career, and as a farewell role. Early Adriana Lecouvreurs were attractive young women such as Angelica Pandolfini and the celebrated beauty Lina Cavalieri. It was later that it became an opportunity for middle-aged sopranos getting worn, wobbly, or precarious at the top, but able to command a stage.

      Some of this has to do with careers starting later now. We’re probably forever past the days of singers debuting in major roles as teenagers (Scotto, Silja). Now you read about “young” singers who are almost as old as Ponselle was when she stopped. I’m generally fine with an older Hanna. The same piece has a good ingénue role in Valencienne, and young sopranos have a lot of things to sing in which their youth is an obvious benefit.