The Met’s sumptuous new Merry Widow to grace the screens in HD
Operetta? I love it! I hear it as I stop to smell the roses. Initial premise as well as corroborative personal evidence thus stated, now to the Met’s new production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, which premiered New Year’s Eve just past.
It’s a gala affair, as it should be, in many ways like the Met’s foray into the younger Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus last season. The Merry Widow production this year is properly sumptuous and colorfully elegant, but also a little trashy when it needs to be. Jeremy Sams’ English dialogue and translations of the lyrics are smooth and generally witty (and thankfully not as trashy as they could be in this day and age, given the obvious undercurrents in a story from Lehár’s day and age).
Also, very important for the mood of an operetta evening, the folks on stage seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Placido Domingo and Frederica von Stade, stars of the Met’s previous production, new in 2000, didn’t seem to be having a whole lot of fun together. Not exactly a lesson in interpersonal chemistry...The Mellow Widow more like.
Director/choreographer Susan Stroman, in her Met debut, is a major part of the sparkle. She keeps the action and the dancing moving right along, but without falling into the easy trap that just because music can be danced to it should be danced to. The Chez Maxim scene at the opera’s close is much too much fun to be considered excessive; the dancers and the Waltzerlied (Princess Anna Elisa’s Liebe, du Himmel auf Erde from Act II of Lehár’s Paganini, sung in English) inserted therein gives the scene a nice weight of its own, putting it in balance with the previous two, even if it prolongs an otherwise speedy denouement. What’s more, the dancers are lovely, lively, and sexy, as well they should be.
Hanna Glawari is a diva role for sure. Renée Fleming soars through her two showcase airs (Vilja and the above mentioned inserted waltz song) and follows the mood of her other numbers well. She plays the society lady, but when things get a little scrappy she finds her inner farm girl (Hanna’s that is, not Ms. Fleming’s) to give her character more depth. Hanna, so the story goes, was a farmer’s daughter whose love relationship with the young Count Danilo was dashed by his appearances and rank minded uncle. About to lose the family farm, Hanna marries big money, only to have her older husband die on their wedding night. Now she’s über wealthy and available. Hence a merry widow.
Danilo is expertly and handsomely handled by baritone Nathan Gunn. Vocally, the part lies well within his comfort zone, both singing and speaking. His character’s complexities shine through too: Danilo is still heartbroken over the loss of Hanna and somehow resentful that she married for money soon thereafter. Inside he hasn’t stopped loving her, keeping rather a stiff upper lip, so to speak, which, we learn early on, he liberally wets with drink and the lips of the loose women at Maxim’s. Yet he refuses on principle to start up the relationship with her again because of her money. Gunn and Fleming nicely convey the approach-avoidance conflict throughout the evening.
Soprano Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut, is charming and vivacious as Valencienne, the wife of the older Baron Mirko Zeta, who serves as ambassador in Paris for Pontevedro, a small Balkan country teetering on bankruptcy. O’Hara brings a joyful jolt of youth, even letting her hair down to dance with the girls in the final scene. She’s torn between a respectable marriage and a passionate affair with Camille de Rosillon, her French suitor, sung by Alek Shrader. O’Hara sends as many mixed messages as her dilemma allows. Shrader is a handsome Rosillon, pleasing but rather light of voice. However, his aria and their duet before entering the pavilion was simply ravishing, a highlight of the evening. This is Lehar at his most sensual.
Sir Thomas Allen is a strong blustery Baron Zeta. Noteworthy for his comic timing and characterization is Carson Elrod in the speaking role of Njegus, listed as Danilo’s Assistant. Very funny, always evoking a laugh. Bravo!
Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with flair.
Ms. Stroman’s choreography is consistently fluid and creative, be it formal waltzing, Balkan folk dancing, or a high kicking Parisian can can. Julian Crouch’s sets, with costumes by William Ivey Long, and lighting designed by Paule Constable provide a colorful backdrop for the action.
The depth of the sets sometimes swallows the dialogue and also any singing that lies below a singer’s projection range. To compensate for the first problem, the dialogue is tastefully miked (check out the pair of large crescent speakers suspended from the Met’s ceiling); as for the second, the placement of the microphones for the HD telecast performance should allow everything to be audible.
It’s worth noting too that Hanna’s golden evening gown seems to constrain the ease of some of Fleming’s movement in the final scenes.
Review performance date: January 6, 2015. For the record, on this evening a backstage scenery malfunction interrupted the progress of the final scene. No one was hurt and the performance continued as soon as it was corrected.
All and all the Met's new Merry Widow is very pleasant night at the Met, a veritable musical treasure from the world of operetta.
Photos by Ken Howard.
Be advised: the performance running time is 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission.
Start the new year off right: make it special. Stop to smell the roses. Well, when they finally thaw. Too darn cold out there Tuesday night!