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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Opera Review: The Little Kicks

The Merry Widow returns at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Flying over Gay Paree: three Grisettes in Act III of the Met's production of The Merry Widow.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Lehár's The Merry Widow is back on its stage. This time, it is Susan Graham, back in the title role of Hanna Glawari, the young and glamorous  Pontivedrian heiress at play in the City of Lights. This production, (which starred Renée Fleming when it bowed on New Year's Eve 2014) is the first Met show by Tony-winning director and choreographer Susan Strohman (The Producers.) Under the baton of principal conductor Fabio Luisi, Monday night's performance had considerable energy  if little poise as the orchestra bashed through the composer's catchy tunes.

The generator of most of that energy was Ms. Graham. Her onstage demeanor, considerable comic gifts and supple mezzo fitted the demanding role like a silk elbow-length glove. From her grand entrance in the first act she dominated the action, her supple mezzo-soprano soaring on its own flights and cutting cleanly through ensembles. With her queenly presence masking a subtle sense of humor and good nature, this was a performance that charmed both ears and hearts.

The absolute highlight was the Vilja song from Act II. Ms. Graham held both chorus and audience rapt in this tale of a love-lorn mermaid, delivering the text with the force and emotion of a lieder singer and doing what most operetta productions fail at--taking the work seriously and letting the composer make his own statement. She continued this approach through all three acts, putting her own vocal spin on the famous Merry Widow waltz and leading lilting numbers that would occasionally accelerate into the mad dash of a Czárdás.

Entering with a lurching (and unconvincing) drunk act, her Danilo (Rod Gilfry) eventually settled into a strong performance. As he and Hanna began their long circling of each other, the veteran operatic baritone applied this same straight-faced approach to their ongoing lover's quarrel. His Princess song in Act II reminded one of this artist's flexibility and power, getting deserved exposure at this point in a long operatic career. The Merry Widow Waltz and reconciliation at the end of the show was positively heart-warming, with Mr. Gilfry's warm, dry baritone a good match for Ms. Graham's pliant mezzo.

The secondary lovers are important in this show. Stephen Costello was callow and sweet-toned as Camille, the Parisian buck whose sordid affair with Valencienne (Andriana Chuchman) sets the action moving forward. Their canoodling in the first act and his stellar Act II aria brought youthful energy to the performance, heightened by the presence of Juilliard veterans Wallis Giunta and Alexander Lewis in smaller supporting roles. Alan Opie was perfect casting as the gruff Baron Zeta, whose half-hearted proposal to Hanna in Act III was the show's best comic moment. Less successful, the mincing and stereotyped Njegus of Carson Elrad who serves as little more than a motor for the threadbare plot.

It's a pity then, that these artists were forced, (as all operetta performers are at the Met these days) to tongue-wrestle with the opera's new English translation by the house's own poet laureate Jeremy Sams. This charming little show was riddled with dramatic tweaks and some updated (and groan-inducing) rhymes, as the lyricist struggled to make words fit together and flow smoothly. (How many ways can you use the phrase "gay Paree?") Apparently, some of the excesses of Mr. Sams' original dialogue have been trimmed short to make the show run more smoothly, but it still pales next to the wit of the original German text by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein.

The trompe-l'oeil sets by Julian Crouch combine real 3D props with carefully painted backdrops, giving the illusion of a deep acting area but in reality robbing the performers of any room to move, sing and (all-important in Léhar) dance--a puzzling decision given the depths of the Met stage. True, Ms. Strohman pulled off some spectacular choreographic numbers (the curtain-up transition to the third act at Maxim's featured a trio of flying grisettes) and the extended dance numbers with Ms. Chuchman front-and-center had considerable...kick. The little farce, misunderstanding and reconciliation between all couples played out in an inoffensive way like Hofmannsthal light and one left the theater feeling uplifted.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.