The Merry Widow
By Franz Lehár
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Most of us love a holiday tradition. The movies have White Christmas, the dance world has The Nutcracker Suite, and for those of us who love opera, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without The Merry Widow. This time around, Lyric Opera of Chicago has gifted us with the equivalent of a shiny new sports car wrapped in shimmering ribbon: a production of Franz Lehár’s beloved operetta that is at once familiar and spectacularly new, as lush and delectable in its presentation as a box of fine Viennese chocolates.
The Merry Widow has all the fairy tale elements we long for at this dark time of year; a rags to riches story, a hilarious sub-plot involving mistaken identity (along with some grown-up romantic dalliances to add a little spice), lost love regained, and that rarest of treats in opera, a happy ending when our unconventional heroine saves the day!
Wealthy widow Hanna Glawari (Reneé Fleming) could save Pontevedro by marrying a citizen and committing her fortune to her tiny homeland, if only she weren’t having so much fun on the Paris social scene. Baron Mirko Zeta (Patrick Carfizzi), Pontevedro’s ambassador in Paris, and his wife Valencienne (Heidi Stober) make it their mission to set Hanna up with playboy attaché Danilo Danilovich (Thomas Hampson), unaware that Hanna and Danilo (now a committed bachelor) were once romantically involved.
Romance has not escaped Valencienne, however. Unbeknownst to the baron, she is being wooed by a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon (Michael Spyres). And so the pursuits begin!
He, the dapper chocolate soldier and she, the sparkling spun sugar bride atop the wedding cake, Fleming and Hampson are a wonderful pair as Hanna and Danilo. Both mature singers with the ability to imbue even the most familiar aria with real emotion (and obviously enjoying them selves and the audience), these two seasoned veterans are a joy to see and hear. Fleming’s performance of Vilja is particularly sentimental and beautiful.
Throughout the production, her singing was round and emotionally full, the low end of her range buttery and rich, and the high notes clearly spectacular. Also well matched were Stober and Spyres, whose romantic duet in Act Two (I Know A Place Where We Can Go) was a performance highlight.
The beauty of The Merry Widow’s music and the charm of its drawing room comedy are taken to a whole new level in this production by over-the-top visuals and exciting choreography. Despite the Parisian setting, Julian Crouch’s multi-layered set retains an Eastern European feeling, with a deep blue sky (outside the window of the embassy in the ballroom scenes, and behind the moonlit folk celebration at Hanna’s villa) giving the environment the feeling of a Russian folk painting.
With each set change, an overlapping backdrop is raised, physically bringing the audience deeper into the set as the story progresses. In the opulent opening ballroom scene, we are practically inside the set itself, with characters and dancers very close to the edge of the stage. Large windows reveal a moonlit hillside neighborhood with lighted windows and stars twinkling, a visual preview of our trip to Hanna’s country estate in Scene Two.
It is in the second scene that the work of costume designer William Ivey Long and choreographer/director Susan Stroman really come to the fore. Lush colors, layered textures of tapestry and fur and elaborate trimmings make Long’s aristocratic “peasants” come into vibrant focus, while Stroman’s acrobatic folk dancers create a rustic and festive aura that is spot on for the scene.
Stroman and Long really take us over the top in Scene Three, as they bring the beautifully overwrought interior of Maxim’s to life, complete with elaborate Art Nouveau scrollwork and a chorus line of saucy grisettes , their red, black and white crinolines frequently tossed to give a glimpse of black lace-trimmed knickers. The visual richness of every scene is enhanced by the unexpectedly colorful lighting design of Chris Maravich.
It is always a joy to experience the timeless music and clever wit of The Merry Widow. Lyric has perfected that experience with premiere casting, world class orchestral performance, spectacular dancing and the creation of a beautiful world we all want to inhabit, if only for a few fleeting hours.