The Met’s showy ‘Merry Widow’ in HD revives the Belle Epoque

Gorgeous period setting, costuming also bring back the Golden Era of operetta, when composer’s weren’t afraid of entertainment or a tune. Renée Fleming stars.

"Merry Widow," opening scene. (Credit: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2015 – This past Saturday’s “Met in HD” simulcast of Franz Lehar’s popular 1905 operetta “The Merry Widow” (“Die lustige Witwe”) demonstrated once again why this series of live opera broadcasts is fast becoming the hottest ticket in any town for lovers of classical music. (The fact that Renée Fleming is starring in this production’s title role doesn’t hurt either.)

Typical Belle Epoque-style ad in English.
Typical Belle Epoque-style ad in English. (Via Wikipedia)

What’s initially most striking about this production are its visuals, notably its brilliant Belle Epoque sets, lovingly designed by Julian Crouch. Dressing this production up, as Mr. Crouch does, gives us an authentic glimpse into how the European upper crust lived not long before the disaster of World War I changed everything utterly.

It’s this lost world into which Mr. Crouch brings the operetta’s fun but frivolous action. This sensation is further enhanced by William Ivey Long’s gorgeous period costumes. Visually, this is grand opera at its best and most detailed, the kind of physical production that few if any opera companies can afford these days (including, actually, the Met if you followed this summer’s budget wars in any detail.)

In many respects, though, what made things really tick behind the scenes was the Met’s inspired decision to hire Broadway’s Susan Stroman as “The Merry Widow’s” director and choreographer.

A five-time Tony Award-winner, Ms. Stroman deftly blends her unusually diverse array of performers—opera singers and chorus members plus Broadway stars and dancers—into a unified company. Together, they create a sometimes schmaltzy, always romantic light opera production that snaps and crackles with the pizazz of a first-rate Broadway show.

Headlining the current production is Met superstar soprano Renée Fleming. She’s perfectly cast in the role of the glamorous merry widow herself, Hanna Glawari.

Valencienne (Kelli O'Hara), hanging with the "grisettes."
Valencienne (Kelli O’Hara), hanging with the “grisettes” in a Belle Epoque-style Maxim’s. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Part of the charm of this operetta is that its gossamer central story, unlike “Romeo and Juliet” and its modern cinematic siblings, is an adult romance, not a story of young love. “The Merry Widow’s” central characters are well past the blush of youth and heading for at least their second time around the proverbial romantic block. They’re still game for a chance at romance. But having already loved and lost, they play the game now with considerably more finesse and a fair degree of calculation.

Which gets us back to Ms. Fleming. She’s had a storied career thus far, having risen to considerable stardom far removed from her early days as a promising young diva. Both she and her voice are still portraits of beauty and elegance, tempered now, however, by years of experience. In other words, Ms. Fleming at this point in her career is perfectly ready and perfectly cast in her first appearance as Léhar’s glamorous, self-confident widow, a true woman of the world.

Hanna (Renée Fleming) makes her grand entrance at the Embassy Ball.
Hanna (Renée Fleming) makes her grand entrance at the Embassy Ball. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The character she portrays is a once-impoverished woman who gets lucky later in life, hitting the jackpot by enchanting—and marrying—a wealthy, elderly landowner. Better yet, he promptly does her the favor of expiring promptly on their wedding night. No wonder she’s a “merry widow.”

Despite some sniping from the upper-class Parisians who still regard her as common, Hanna is now comfortably upper-class by default. As we meet her in Act I, she is enjoying her status immensely and is not overly tempted to alter it. She’s the belle of the ball, the prize catch and central attraction at a fund-raising party thrown in the Parisian digs of Baron Mirko Zeta (baritone Sir Thomas Allen), the Pontevedrian ambassador to France.

Danilo and Zeta.
Baron Zeta (Sir Thomas Allen) tries to interest Count Danilovitch) in a suitable match. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Also a Pontevedrian, Hanna has discovered that life in gay Paree is considerably more fun than hanging out in her bucolic homeland. That’s what worries the Baron and his government. On the verge of insolvency, Pontevedro needs the support of France (along with plenty of its francs). But the small nation is terrified that it will lose Hanna—plus her considerable wealth and patronage—to the Gallic state if they don’t move quickly to secure that wealth.

Zeta’s scheme is to convince playboy, serial womanizer and fellow countryman, Count Danilo Danilovitch (baritone Nathan Gunn), to marry Hanna and keep her fortune at home. Danilo agrees to play, but to a point, given that he’s hostile to the concept of love and marriage, while Hanna seems diffident as well.

Hanna (Renée Fleming) and Danilo (Nathan Gunn).
Hanna (Renée Fleming) and Danilo (Nathan Gunn). Will they or won’t they? (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

We soon learn why. They have a history. When they were much younger, Hanna and Danilo were involved a torrid romantic affair. But the Count’s father quashed his son’s honorable intentions, forbidding any thought of marriage due to Hanna’s low social standing.

Now things have changed, and both parties are facing that famously interesting dilemma: Can love be better the second time around?

“The Merry Widow” plot-line features an interlocking, secondary romance/affair highlighting the antics of Baron Zeta’s flirtatious and much-younger wife, Valencienne (Broadway star and soprano Kelli O’Hara); namely, her budding and not very discrete affair with the passionate Camille de Rosillon (tenor Alek Shrader), a dashing French Count. It’s an illicit match that’s bound to cause problems not only for the Baron, but for Hanna and Count Danilovitch as well.

Like many an operetta or comic opera, “Merry Widow’s” romantic machinations seem trifling on the surface. But the sprightly and literate original German libretto—translated into English and deftly modernized by Jeremy Sams for this production—possesses a wit and a wisdom that many such comic confections rarely approach. It brings freshness and relevance to the Met’s 21st century production.

Valencienne (Kelli O'Hara) and Camille (Alek Shrader).
Valencienne (Kelli O’Hara) and Camille (Alek Shrader) try to get a good affair going. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Just as Hanna Glawari is the golden orb around which “The Merry Widow” revolves, so, too, is Ms. Fleming. Now of a certain age, Ms. Fleming knowingly gives us a proud, sophisticated, but carefully measured Hanna Glawari. Her deep experience leads to a marvelously nuanced performance that projects this character in a most believable and sympathetic way. There is still a thrill in her top notes, but there is wit and wisdom in her delivery, and both she—and Hanna—are worthy of all the attention they get in this production.

Happily, Ms. Fleming has a worthy match in Nathan Gunn. His Count Danilovitch comes across as an experienced if reluctant rake who’s grown tired of the game in middle age. He just might be willing to settle down—perhaps with his long-lost love—but is reluctant to risk disappointment once again. Mr. Gunn projects both hope and world-weariness with his steady, sturdy, and marvelously expressive instrument, one that proves a lovely match for Ms. Fleming’s luminous voice.

As would-be couple number two, soprano Kelli O’Hara and tenor Alek Shrader are Ms. Fleming’s and Mr. Gunn’s exact opposites: a nervously twitchy romantic match nearly made in heaven but not quite.

Mr. Shrader impressed us last summer as an awkward Ernesto in the Santa Fe Opera’s side-splittingly funny production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.” He brings Ernesto’s goofily endearing earnestness to this production—as well as his distinctively clean, almost boyish tenor voice—to brighten up his role as the equally earnest Camille de Rosillon.

Valencienne joins the grisettes.
Baron Zeta (Thomas Allen, background, left) thinks that new “grisette” looks a lot like wife Valencienne (Kelli O’Hara). (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

He’s a good match for Ms. O’Hara. Having made a fine reputation for herself already in a variety of Broadway roles, “The Merry Widow” is the perfect vehicle for her to try out her operatic chops—particularly since she originally trained to be an opera singer anyway. She and the chirpy, scheming yet still endearing Valencienne make for quite a pair.

As the aging Zeta’s already-bored trophy wife, Valencienne is more than ready for a sizzling romance, illicit or otherwise. Ms. O’Hara’s Broadway skills bring a special dimension to her role. Her supple lyric soprano voice combines with an almost vaudevillian sensibility to bring Valencienne’s lightly comic character to vivid life. Ms. O’Hara’s skills as a hoofer also come into play as Valencienne surreptitiously joins the “grisettes” in the third act’s naughty, funny and raucous can-can dance sequence.

A brief time out might also be in order at this point for one of Ms. O’Hara’s Broadway colleagues, Carson Elrod, who appears in the spoken, comic role of Njegus, the Pontevedrian Embassy secretary. Mr. Elrod sets in motion some of the best running jokes in the show, adding even more sparkle to the production.

Along with Ms. O’Hara and a crack troupe of dancers drafted from 42nd St. and environs, Ms. Stroman’s expert mixing of Broadway and opera combine to make the entire production wonderfully entertaining.

"Merry Widow" Grand Finale at Maxim's.
“Merry Widow” Grand Finale at Maxim’s, with principal cast front and center. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

We’d be remiss if we didn’t offer a few more hat tips before bringing down our own curtain on this review. A big hat tip certainly goes to this production’s wily yet clueless Baron Zeta as winningly portrayed by veteran lyric baritone Thomas Allen. Even at the age of 70, Sir Thomas still has plenty of years left for this kind of role should he choose to stay active in opera, and he has proved to be yet another inspired casting choice in this production. Plus, like other cast members, he seemed to be having a great deal of fun throughout.

The Met Chorus is certainly to be congratulated—as are the soloists—for working gamely with Ms. Stroman on their dance skills for this production. Combined with the sparkling dance skills of the professional dancers, the chorus and the choreography give this “Merry Widow” a production-number quality you’ll rarely see on most opera stages.

Composer Franz Léhar.
Composer Franz Léhar (1870-1948). Via Wikipedia.

Musically, this enchanting light opera confection is expertly led by Sir Andrew Davis. He and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra are at the top of their game, providing a lovely backdrop for the singers, a sizzling introductory overture, and a beautiful, lilting rendition of Franz Léhar’s greatest hit, the deservedly famous “Merry Widow Waltz.”

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

If you missed Saturday’s live simulcast of the Met’s “Merry Widow,” there’s still hope. There’s an encore performance (a recording of the live HD simulcast) at participating local movie palaces this Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 6:30 p.m.


For advance tickets, information and theater locations visit the Met’s website.

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