No Weak Links in Met’s Lavish Merry Widow

United StatesUnited States Lehár, The Merry Widow: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Sir Andrew Davis (cnductor). Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 17.1.2015. (JPr)

Photo Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) Kelli O'Hara (Valencienne) and company of The Merry Widow c The Metropolitan Opera
Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne) & company of The Merry Widow
(c) The Metropolitan Opera

Vicomte Cascada: Jeff Mattsey
Baron Mirko Zeta: Sir Thomas Allen
Valencienne: Kelli O’Hara
Sylviane: Emalie Savoy
Olga: Wallis Giunta
Praskowia: Margaret Lattimore
Camille de Rossilon: Alek Shrader
Raoul sw St Brioche: Alexander Lewis
Kromow: Daniel Mobbs
Pritschitsch: Gary Simpson
Bogdanovitch: Mark Schowalter
Njegus: Carson Elrod
Hanna Glawari: Renée Fleming
Count Daniolo Danilovitch: Nathan Gunn
Grisettes: Synthia Link, Alison Mixon, Emily Pynenburg, Leah Hofmann, Jenny Laroche & Catherine Hamilton

Director: Susan Stroman
Set Designer: Julian Crouch
Costume Designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Dewsigner: Mark Grey
Choreographer: Susan Stroman

Live in HD Director: Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host: Joyce DiDonato

As someone who is half-Viennese and has seen Lehár’s 1905 operetta at the Vienna Volksoper and elsewhere, it is clear that is it just an entertaining piece of Viennese froth despite what some musicologists might discern in it. I know it was a favourite of Gustav Mahler ad his wife, Alma, but I think Gavin Plumley went a little too far in a programme note once when he tried to imbue it with fin-de-siècle psychosexual depths that clearly are not relevant, and also suggest it is distanced from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus some 30 years earlier because of the influence of Richard Strauss and Puccini on the music (which also is not very discernible). It is simply a crowd-pleasing echo of the resonant energy of Vienna’s Imperial heyday, mixing together self-aware nostalgia, slyness and sophistication with some glorious melodies, including waltzes, galops, the can-can and folk tunes. Viktor Léon and Leo Stein’s libretto is full of broad humour, with its familiar themes of marital infidelity and unrequited love, and just about survives Jeremy Sams’s English translation. This had a few too many obvious rhymes for words at the ends of phrases and the occasional double entendres (for instance, Hanna’s ‘millions’ confused for ‘melons’) also seemed to be glossed over for fear of offending the Met audience.

It is a typically ridiculous plot that does not differ much from those of many another operettas. We are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris, when near-bankrupt European countries — like the fictional Pontevedro here — spared no expense to schmooze a wealthier nation like France. The source of Pontevedro’s imminent financial ruin is the widow Hanna Glawari, the country’s sole remaining moneyed citizen who is in the French capital to find a husband. If she marries anyone but a Pontevedrian the country will lose her fortune and go bust. The Pontevedrian embassy parties away with an ensemble of cheating wives and philandering husbands — even Valencienne, the wife of Ambassador Baron Zeta, has embarked on an affair with Camille, Count de Rosillon. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be-bankrupt state, while Hanna (for her money) is pursued by all the unmarried men in Paris she has set her heart on her country’s most eligible bachelor, Count Danilo Danilowitsch, but he is a roué unwilling to commit … but we have already seen too many of the twentieth-century’s clichéd musicals not to know where this – one of their antecedents – is going.

The Met seems to have spared no expensive on its new production and had a strong cast led by star soprano Renée Fleming as Hanna, the burly baritone Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo and the accomplished Broadway performer Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut as Valencienne … not forgetting the always reliable Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Zeta. The production was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, a winner of five Tony Awards and also making her Met debut. Her production appeared absolutely faithful to the style of the piece and could have been put on like this at almost any time in the last century.

When the curtain rose  we were shown Julian Crouch’s solidly three-dimensional Pontevedrian Embassy that is clearly redolent of Belle Époque Paris and William Ivey Long’s costumes which are never less than sumptuous and somewhat OTT throughout the show. The period grandeur of the set rather overshadows Act I which takes a while to get going possibly because of all the exposition. When the talking stops and there is music to be heard it is clear that Sir Andrew Davis loves the score and he drew a suitably high-spirited and lilting performance from the Met orchestra. I understand Davis was responsible for the rather unfamiliar new overture that was arranged from some of Lehár’s best tunes from the operetta. After the interval we are at Hanna’s garden party at her villa for Act II and then there is smooth change of scene and we are at Maxim’s for Act III brought alive by all its pleasure-seeking customers and the eye-catching dancing of the grisettes who really can can-can! A slightly tipsy Valencienne joins in and Kelli O’Hara almost stops the show with her bravura performance. Ms. Stroman’s work is at its best with all the dance routines, not just the teasing and gymnastic can-can at Maxim’s but with the folkloric dancing at Hanna’s party. As a result Acts II and III worked well and I was swept up in enjoying how all the romantic loose ends would be resolved … even if I did not know only too well already.

I don’t know how this would have worked in the huge Met auditorium when I understand microphones were needed for the dialogue and, naturally, the audience did not have the benefit of Gary Halvorson’s close-up camera work, but I realised I had thoroughly enjoyed myself when it was all over. When asked about the difference between appearing on Broadway or at the Met Nathan Gunn hinted that it was a sense of scale and there is ‘a need to make it intimate’ and Kelli O’Hara reiterated this when interviewed later. It was clear in Act I who were the singers with Broadway experience and those that were not. Renée Fleming obviously seemed to be trying too hard and seemed to be performing to the back of the circle whilst Nathan Gunn, Kelli O’Hara and Carson Elrod (as a slightly camp and very fussy Njegus) gave more relaxed performances.

Fleming nevertheless oozed a haughty charm and was at her best from the start of Act II with ‘Vilja, O Vilja, You Magical Child’ and it made me almost forget her strained and short-breathed singing at the start. She was wonderfully complemented by Kelli O’Hara’s pert and sexy Valencienne (Ms O’Hara is clearly capable of performing Hanna later in her career); Nathan Gunn’s ever-smiling and incredibly charismatic lover, Danilo; Alek Shrader’s refined tenor as the suitor, Camille, and not forgetting Sir Thomas Allen’s deft comic turn as the cuckolded – yet ultimately forgiving – Baron Zeta. There was also no weak link in the even smaller roles … but as good as it was is The Merry Widow –  as a work – worthy of all the money the Met has obviously thrown at it and the right place to perform it?


Jim Pritchard

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