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Renée Fleming
16 Dec 2015

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Renée Fleming


In this staging owned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Patrick Carfizzi performs the role of Baron Mirko Zeta, his wife Valencienne and her admirer Camille de Rosillon are sung by Heidi Stober and Michael Spyres. The aspiring Frenchmen, Viscount Cascada and Raoul de St. Brioche, are represented by Paul La Rosa and Jonathan Johnson, Njegus is Jeff Dumas, and Praskovia is performed by Genevieve Thiers. M. Carfizzi and Mmes. Stober and Thiers are appearing in their debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus. For this production the operetta is performed in English.

Many of the orchestral themes and melodies are captured in the work’s overture, performed here with seamless lyricism under Davis’s direction. An anchor of place and time, Paris 1905, appears above the stage as the first scene is about to commence. A ball is underway at the Pontevedrian embassy, staged with glittering colors, elaborate décor, and an appropriately choreographed dance featuring multiple couples. The narrative action unfolds with a toast proposed by Viscount Cascada to honor the host of the ball, Baron Zeta, ambassador of Pontevedro. Mr. La Rosa’s Cascada has a fittingly smooth delivery, his measured syllables in the toast clearly meant to honor yet also to further his own cause. Baron Zeta’s corresponding toast to both the fatherland and to France are marked by a comparable multiplicity of intentions. In this scene Zeta communicates to his assistant Njegus the urgency of securing funds to bolster the woeful Pontevedrian treasury. Mr. Carfizzi’s Zeta dominates the stage in a performance incorporating a firm sense of line and well-chosen lyrical decorations. His solution, to arrange a marriage between the wealthy Pontevedrian widow Hanna Glawari and her countryman Count Danilo, motivates the remainder of the operetta’s action. Once Njegus is dispatched to “Find Danilo!” in time for the arrival of Hanna as guest of honor, additional guests and officials of the embassy begin to populate the stage. Praskowia, wife of a retired Pontevedrian colonel, narrates the background of Hanna Glawari’s marriage, wealth, and widowhood. Ms. Thiers, overdressed and similarly coifed as this spouse of a self-important attaché, embroiders with relish a version of Hanna’s rise in status and ultimate wealth. Thiers’s comic timing and subtle gestures - both here and in later scenes - make her a marvelous foil to the other characters. During this presentation of the main plot an emotional sub-text of sorts develops. Baron Zeta’s wife Valencienne spends considerable time responding to the advances of Camille de Rosillon, although Zeta presumes that political expediency remains her sole motive. In their secret exchange of mutual feeling Mr. Spyres’s Camille declares with tenorial excitement, “my heart belongs to you.” In response Ms. Stober captures the spirit of Valencienne’s dilemma with a convincing blend of theatrics and song. Her protest to Camille, “A highly respectable wife is forced to be cautious in life,” is delivered with lyrical fervor yet with a continued interest in the dalliance already begun. Once Camille writes on her fan “I love you,” a recurrent theme of the lost-and-found object is set up for the duration of the drama. For now Spyres and Stober conclude their scene with a joyful pitch on “together.”

During the balance of Act One the two principal characters enter separately, yet their inevitable destiny brings them to at least a shared dance by the close. Ms. Fleming assures an adoring male chorus that she had not expected to be “the toast of gay Paris.” Fleming fills the role of Hanna with dignity, assuredly executed trills, and the wistful need already here for another’s interest in more than her “millions.” In this production the poses and competitive gestures of potential suitors, led by La Rosa and Johnson, are entertainingly shallow. Soon after Hanna’s transfer to an adjoining room Danilo enters as summoned from the voluptuous pleasures of Maxim’s. Mr. Hampson is a comfortable fit in the role of Danilo. He acts the part with sufficient self-absorption to convince, and the vocal line suits him now especially well. In his entrance song, “As diplomatic attaché,” Hampson traces the changing tempos with natural grace, as he describes contrasting his daily bureaucratic tasks with nightly diversions at the club. His corporeal movements mimic a fatigued spirit until he accepts the invitation of Njegus to enjoy a nap on the divan. It is here that Hanna discovers him, prompting their unexpected reunion and the revelation of an earlier, potential relationship which was halted. The story of these memories feeds a repartee suggesting their continued attraction despite obstacles which must be softened. Camille and Valencienne enter to sing of their imaginary world where prior commitments are dismissed. Here Stober and Spyres show touching sentiment as they close their duet with a piano emphasis on the “Neverland” of their dreamed romance.

When Danilo learns from Zeta that he is expected to marry Hanna, the division between the two former lovers seems to widen. During the subsequent “Ladies Choice” of the ball Hanna offers the dance to Danilo who refuses as a continuation of their banter. Once the others present have arranged for partners, Danilo consents to dance but Hanna at this point refuses. Fleming and Hampson execute this repartee with telling movement and facial expressions so that the audience can sense a growing tension between their characters. The strains of the waltz ultimately melt this mutual resistance; the act ends with their dance, indeed suggesting a road which leads - eventually - to harmony.

The second and third acts elucidate this path further starting at the French estate of Hanna where a folk festival recalling the homeland is celebrated. The set for Act Two is beautifully realized with moonlight suggested through blossoming trees, statuary, and a requisite pavilion for subsequent encounters and hidden rendezvous. Hanna announces to guests the festival honoring “native custom,” for which both she and many of the others wear costume from the homeland. The “Song of Vilja,” maid of the woods who lures the lovesick hunter, is performed by Fleming in all its poignant beauty. Top notes are held and shaded piano, the aching breadth of the lines (e.g., “Vilja, where have you flown?”) is sung with an emotional intensity hinting at the possibility still of love to be caught. This scene with chorus participating is a vocal highlight of the performance. Danilo’s entrance and further interaction with Hanna suggests, again, on the surface a persistent distance in their relationship. As portrayed by Hampson, Danilo’s refusal to state his affections and instead to sing of the complex nature of women serves merely to underline a need to protest his true emotions. The identity of the lost fan’s owner becomes a task for Danilo to solve, so that Camille’s alleged affections for Hanna can finally be unmasked as bogus. The lyrical display of a romance between Camille and Valencienne continues with Spyres providing memorable expressive warmth on “The rose that blooms in April.” Yet this relationship, like such a flower, is destined to fade in contrast to the growing intensity evident between the protagonists. Although Camille and Valencienne meet alone in the pavilion, the liaison is further concealed from Zeta when Hanna assumes the woman’s place. Hampson’s delightfully furious outburst expressing Danilo’s pique when he sees Hanna and Camille emerge together and announce their marriage confirms the widow’s perception that he truly loves her . In the final act at Maxim’s, a refuge where Danilo can mask his bruised feelings, the principal characters appear to participate in both revelation and resolution. Hanna confesses her motivation with Camille to the delight of Danilo, yet Zeta refuses to forgive a presumed peccadillo on the part of his wife. The offending fan becomes a key to forgiveness, just as Hanna’s disappearing fortune moves Danilo to profess his love. Both couples resolve for a happy future in this happy, frothy production.

Salvatore Calomino

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