December 4, 2015

Disappointing leads, budget sets undercut an otherwise merry Widow

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Operetta is like champagne—fun, fizzy, free of death or incest. In a new-to-Chicago production of Lehár’s The Merry Widow, Lyric Opera of Chicago tries to channel Viennese glitz into holiday cheer. Unfortunately, cheap sets and poor casting detract from a generally enjoyable show; Christmas did not come early for opera lovers. 

The fictional Balkan monarchy of Pontevedro is in arrears. The ambassador charges Count Danilo (Thomas Hampson) with an important diplomatic mission: He must marry the rich widow Hanna Glawari (Renée Fleming) and procure her millions for the fatherland. Danilo refuses. He was formerly engaged to Hanna, but broke it off because his family did not approve. It is apparent that they still have feelings for each other—will pride get in the way of a second chance? 

I have tremendous respect for Renée Fleming. She sang the role of the Countess in the first opera broadcast I ever saw, the Met’s 1995 production of Figaro: To her sensitivity and artistry I owe my passion for opera. Thus it pains me to denounce the profound miscasting of Fleming as Lehár’s merry widow. Her voice has matured beyond the role, which calls for levity and sparkle rather than lyric richness.

Mushy diction further impaired her performance. I relied heavily on the projected surtitles last Wednesday, finding Fleming’s sung English difficult to parse . . . when she could be heard at all. Hanna’s famous entrance—brisk, pattering lines over a lilting waltz—was washed out by her robust chorus of suitors. I suspect that Fleming sacrificed volume to lighten timbre and improve enunciation. Ironically, she became harder to understand—if I could barely hear her five rows from the stage, who could?

Crass characterization compounded vocal shortcomings, with Fleming’s widow more mannered than merry. Great interpreters like Beverly Sills and Jane Thorngren infused their Hannas with wit and spontaneous gaiety. By contrast, Fleming plays her role with rigor mortis: Her gestures came off as rehearsed, almost mechanical. This problem was especially apparent in the famous “Vilja song” in Act II, which became a vehicle for both physical and vocal posturing. “Vilja” is famous for its sweet, simple melody and idyllic mood, but with exaggerated phrasing and barely intelligible English, Fleming piled on more false sentiment than a Ben Carson sympathy-grab.

Primo uomo Thomas Hampson fared better as the dashing, emotionally unavailable Count Danilo. A formidable actor, Hampson delivers his punchlines with sprezzatura and bombast. His dry irony lends especially well to some of the more tedious gags in the translation, spinning a groan-worthy pun on “this fan fatale”—a prop which compromises the ambassador’s wife—for hearty laughs. Danilo's personality was there, yes, but where was his voice? Hampson’s baritone was thin and uneven, his upper register conspicuously threadbare. A crack in the second-act finale underscored his vocal difficulties.

Heidi Stober and Michael Spyres demonstrated consummate chemistry as the ambassador’s wife Valencienne and Camille, her secret lover. Their subplot resonated with incredible depth and sentiment thanks to balanced acting and excellent musicality. Spyres’s affecting tenor paired well with Stober’s sparking soprano in their many character duets: Particularly moving was the second-act “pavilion scene” in which the lovers agree to separate. Set against stirring violins, his invitation for one last kiss is urgent with heartbreak. We succumb to sentiment in the Viennese style—aching, sensuous, bittersweet.

Susan Stroman’s production leaves me ambivalent. Granted, it is a ton of fun—especially the eye-popping third-act choreography with Maxim’s grisettes, the exotic dancers of their day (garter belts, frilly knickers, all that).

But I wish it was more expensive; largely cut from board, the sets looked flat and cheap. I wish it was more tasteful; Stroman’s grisettes belong in a Wild West saloon manned by Tim Burton. I wish it was more glamorous, like the Merry Widow telecasts from the (now defunct) New York City Opera. I remember the razzle-dazzle, bygone splendor, and synergy of cast and costumes of that production—a spectacle of the haut-bourgeois. But I will not remember this production. There is no such thing as discount Lehár. 

In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Orchestra with Viennese vim and vigor. When we say that the music sounds Viennese, what do we mean? The violins have a poignant granularity, almost squeezing nostalgia from the soul. A sense of the languid—waltzes linger on the second beat a little more than they should. Never exaggerate, lest sentiment becomes melodrama. Maestro Davis delivered on all accounts with an extremely balanced showing from the orchestra, careful not to devolve sweet into saccharine. Lehár’s rousing choruses brimmed with relish: The “grisettes’ song” impressed with its oomph and robust physicality.

For all its claims of an all-star lineup, Lyric would do better to cast its Merry Widow with the right voices for its characters. Solid supporting roles and rollicking energy from the pit more than make up for its disappointing leads—yet there is no excuse for cheap Lehár!


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