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In Review > North America

The Merry Widow

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
12/31/14

The Merry Widow returned to the Met on New Year’s Eve, with Renée Fleming as Hanna Glawari, in a new production directed by Susan Stroman.

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Act III finale of Stroman’s new Met staging, with Jeff Mattsey (Cascada), Fleming, Gunn, Lattimore, Gary Simpson (Pritschitsch), O’Hara, Allen and Lewis
© Johan Elbers 2015
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Gunn and Fleming, Danilo and Hanna at the Met
© Beatriz Schiller 2015

This season’s New Year’s Eve offering at the Met, a new Merry Widow production by Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman, was presented in an English version custom-fit for the company by Jeremy Sams, who was responsible for the Met Fledermaus staging that bowed on New Year’s Eve 2013. Unlike the company’s previous Widow — a wry, fairly dark-edged take on Franz Lehár’s masterpiece by the director–designer team of Tim Albery and Antony McDonald — the Stroman staging took a resolutely romantic and traditional approach to the operetta, with lavish costumes by William Ivey Long, glittering lighting by Paule Constable and a trio of pretty sets by Julian Crouch. 

Despite its distinguished artistic team and a fine cast, the Met’s new Widow was not particularly merry. Stroman’s Met debut left an equivocal impression. She delivered some shrewdly judged dances in a striking variety of styles, from beautifully partnered waltzes and a crisp polonaise to a knockout au-vista scene-change that moved the action from the garden of Hanna’s mansion in Act II to Act III’s Chez Maxim with real pizzazz. But Stroman’s overall direction of the piece was considerably less sure: the expository dialogue dragged, apart from those moments driven by the Zeta of the incomparable Thomas Allen, and the love scenes between Hanna and Danilo, as well as those between Valencienne and Camille, lacked any sexual or erotic tension. There was little sense of period style or wit in Sams’s panto-style jokes, which were served broadly and often, tipping some of the libretto’s sillier moments into tiresomeness.

Musical matters were generally better balanced under the baton of Andrew Davis, who conducted with little schlag, but admirable verve, some small lapses in ensemble aside. Davis arranged a beguiling new overture — Lehár famously began Widow with a brief prelude that leads immediately into Act I — and zipped through the high-octane music from John Lanchbery’s Merry Widow Ballet that enlivened the scene change into Chez Maxim. As in the Met’s previous Widow, which Davis also conducted, this staging included the often-omitted (and quite catchy) “Häuslichkeit” duet for Valencienne and Camille in Act I. The only other major change was the addition of “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” — a sentimental number from Lehár’s 1925 operetta Paganini — as an Act III solo for Hanna Glawari.

Although Lehár and his librettists conceived the character of Hanna as a young woman — the first interpreters of the Widow in Vienna and London were both in their early twenties — The Merry Widow has gradually become the property of more seasoned performers. The Met’s new Hanna is Renée Fleming, an authentic superstar who celebrates the twenty-fourth anniversary of her Met debut this year. Fleming’s soprano has retained its firm profile in ensemble, as well as its distinctive rosy color; she phrased the sweet Paganini aria, which was her best solo moment, with impressive style and tackled the dance steps of the kolo and the waltz gamely. But her celebrity works against her performance. As is sometimes the case with this artist, Fleming seemed unconnected to the rest of the show, projecting cool, gracious, star-quality glamour with considerable skill but no discernible spontaneity, giving her performance a vaguely ceremonial air. Flirtatiousness — an essential component of Hanna Glawari’s charm from her first entrance to the last page of the score — does not seem to be Fleming’s natural métier. 

Nathan Gunn’s highly nonchalant Danilo — more of an all-American bad boy than a Pontevedrian roué — was difficult to understand in Act I, despite the expert sound design of Mark Grey, which was in place to amplify the dialogue, rather than the singing.

The best projection of text in the cast was by Allen, who remains a wonder at seventy, his prosody flawless and his timing consistently adroit. Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara made a splendid Met debut as Valencienne, singing, dancing and acting with authority and poise. Alek Shrader, her handsome Camille, is a fine actor who sounded to be at the very edge of his comfort zone in the Act II pavilion duet. 

Trims in the dialogue kept most of the minor characters in the background, but Alexander Lewis’s peppy St. Brioche, Wallis Giunta’s lissome, throaty Olga and Margaret Lattimore’s juicy Praskowia were decided assets, as were the contributions of Donald Palumbo’s invaluable Met chorus. spacer 

F. PAUL DRISCOLL

 

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