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