Chicago, Lyric Opera: “The Merry Widow”

Chicago, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015-2016 Season
Operetta in three acts originally in German, sung in English
English translation by Jeremy Sams
Original libretto by Victor Leon and Leo Stein, after  Henri Meilhac’s comedy L’Attache d’Ambassade
Music by Franz Lehár
Count Danilo Danilovich THOMAS HAMPSON
Camille de Rosillon MICHAEL SPYRES
Raoul de Saint-Brioche JONATHAN JOHNSON
Vicomte Cascada PAUL LA ROSA
Orchestra and Chorus of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis 
Director and Choreographer Susan Stromer
Sets Julian Crouch 
Costumes William Ivey Long
Original Lighting Paul Constable
Lighting for Lyric Chris Maravich 
Sound Design Mark Grey 
Chorus Master Michael Black
Stage Band Conductor Francesco Milioto
Fight Director Nick Sandys  
Production owned by The Metropolitan Opera
Chicago, 3 December 2015 
The Merry Widow was Franz Lehár’s first major success for the operetta stage and is second only to Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus as the most popular and well-loved work of this genre.  Musicologists and other serious types tend to sneer at operetta but no less a critic than the Wagner scholar Ernest Newman once said:  “The best possible singing and playing is no whit too good for the best of Lehár’s music.”  Lehár scored a hit in 1902 with his “Gold and Silver” waltz, a composition he sold for a modest price, which would go on to make a fortune for the publishing house that purchased it.  Lehár learned from his mistake and from then on kept a tight rein on the sale and copyright of his music.  Indeed, he became one of the most financially successful composers of all time.  But Lehár’s immense good fortune could not spare him the impact of cataclysmic world events unfolding throughout his lifetime.  Despite his prestige, the composer narrowly escaped tragedy during the Nazi regime.  Although he was Roman Catholic, Lehár’s wife Sophie was Jewish and much hostility was directed towards him personally and his work.  Hitler, however, enjoyed Lehár’s music immensely and Goebbels intervened directly on his behalf.  In 1938, Mrs. Lehár was given the title of “Ehrenarierin” or “honorary Aryan by marriage.”  Nevertheless, there were repeated attempts to have her deported.  This ever-present anxiety was such that Sophie carried a cyanide capsule on her person for the war’s duration.  While not a fanatical supporter, Lehar’s stance toward the Nazis is clouded by the same ambiguity and moral uncertainty as that which befell Richard Strauss, Carl Orff and other composers active during this period.  In fact, he made a point of presenting Hitler with a leather-bound copy of the score for The Merry Widow as a 50th birthday present in 1938.  To his credit, Lehár tried to use his influence to save the lives of several Jewish colleagues, including one of his former librettists.  Unfortunately, even a composer of Lehár’s renown was powerless to prevent their destruction during the holocaust.
The plot of The Merry Widow is concerned with the fortunes of the Balkan state of Montenegro or as it is referred to in the operetta, “Pontevedro.”  The regional politics involved here are complicated and reflect the tensions which eventually erupted into World War I almost a decade after the work’s premiere (ironically, The Merry Widow was playing in repertoire at Lyric Opera with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, a vastly different piece shaped by the same zeitgeist).  The work is set in Paris, during the sophisticated era of the Belle Époque.  Lehár is thus able to capitalize artistically on two distinct cultures.  The Pontevedrian element is captured through the use of polonaise, mazurka and the Balkan ‘kolo,’ a communal dance of the region.  In contrast, the glittering world of Paris is reflected in his use of the waltz, galop and can-can.  For an essentially self-taught composer, Lehár was a gifted orchestrator.  The Merry Widow is scored for a large ensemble, with a robust contingent of exotic instruments, including glockenspiel, guitar and 3 tamburizzas.  Other composers envied Lehár’s enormous popularity and attempted to emulate his style.  For example, Puccini originally conceived of La rondine as a frothy operetta and intended it to score a huge success with the Viennese public. While there is no question regarding the musical quality of The Merry Widow, its enduring success is also due to the allure of the title character.  It is the ultimate vanity piece for a leading lady and has attracted all manner of celebrities.  The work has been adapted numerous times for the cinema as a vehicle for various stars, including Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald and Lana Turner.  In the operatic world, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made two different complete recordings of the work.  Her rivals Hilde Gueden and Lisa della Casa recorded competing versions, as did Dorothy Kirsten.  More recently, mezzo-sopranos have undertaken it, including Frederica von Stade and Susan Graham.  Even jazz legends like Cleo Laine have reveled in the opportunity to wear glamorous gowns, waltz around the stage and embody the archetype of prima donna to the hilt.  Curiously, Renée Fleming, Lyric Opera’s current choice, seemed embarrassed, even impatient, with the role’s inherent fascination, resulting in what must be counted a low point in her performance history with the company to date. Now in the twilight of a long and distinguished career, Fleming exuded little of the carefree exuberance or extravagant whimsy necessary to enliven the proceedings.  How odd that a soprano who has achieved ultimate fame in her profession seemed so hell bent on exuding bland likeability and “girl next door” demureness.  She managed her greatly reduced vocal resources with care and caution, producing the occasional stretch of pretty singing but sounding underpowered and anemic throughout.  The vocal range was still within her possibilities but high notes resolutely failed to bloom and there was little of the radiant lyricism so notable during her prime years.  Even Fleming’s appearance struck an ambivalent note:  beautifully costumed by William Ivey Long but sporting a series of unflattering, matronly wigs.  As Danilo, Thomas Hampson delivered a consummately professional performance but was hard to take seriously as a dedicated hedonist.  The unofficial successor to the legacy of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hampson has long enjoyed a reputation as a musical intellectual.  But like Fischer-Dieskau, he is most at home in the lofty sentiments of German lieder and seemed uncomfortable with the material at hand, often lapsing into an all-purpose frat boy frivolity rather than the rakish worldliness required.  Like his co-star, Hampson had his moments of threadbare vocalism but was more generous with his limited supply, negotiating the high tessitura with admirable skill.  For those who admired their joint appearances in Massenet’s Thais for Lyric Opera back in 2003, Fleming and Hampson sadly displayed no chemistry together on this occasion.  The librettist for The Merry Widow once quipped about the famously erotic waltz number “Lippen schweigen” or “Lips are silent” that “it’s in ¾ time–causing one to lose three quarters of one’s virtue.”  Here, the moment fell flat.  This starry duo communicated all the sexual tension of the Professor and Mary Anne from Gilligan’s Island, with a grinning smugness equally worthy of a television sitcom. The secondary couple were in somewhat better hands but also suffered from a lack of sophistication.  Substituting at the last minute for an indisposed Heidi Stober, Angela Mannino seemed extraordinarily poised, fitting seamlessly into the ensemble.  Her Valencienne boasted confident singing but lacked dramatic profile, being neither charming sociopath nor earnest birdbrain.  As Camille, Michael Spyres delivered the finest vocalism of the afternoon but cut a distinctly unromantic figure onstage, with little compensation by way of seductive characterization.  All the soloists had to contend with Jeremy Sams’ tortured translation, crammed to excess with enough self-regarding witticism and word play to all but steal focus from the dramatic proceedings.  In a large supporting cast, Patrick Carfizzi did what he could with the thankless part of the chronically anxious Baron Zeta, while Jeff Dumas as Njegus scored most of the laughs heard from the audience through his strong comic timing.  Other embassy figures were well taken by Jonathan Weir, Fred Zimmerman and Michael WeberJonathan Johnson and Paul La Rosa made dashing suitors for the hand of Hanna, while Genevieve Thiers led a humorously delineated trio of Pontevedrian wives.  The staging tried to make a case for individualizing the various grisettes but they remained faceless and interchangeable fixtures of the once-notorious Chez Maxim.
Susan Stroman’s production was disappointing in the extreme, registering like a dated relic from the era of regional dinner theater rather than a brand new production on loan from The Metropolitan Opera.  For a celebrated Broadway director, Stroman settled for dull stage pictures with awkward arrangements of soloists and chorus alike.  In contrast, her choreography injected much needed life and vitality onstage.  Julian Crouch’s sets, with their one-dimensional flats and painted perspectives, bordered on amateurish.   The Lyric Opera Orchestra played well enough for its Music Director Sir Andrew Davis but he led a straight-jacketed account of the score, missing notes of schmaltz and schwung in his overly pedantic approach.  In summary, Lyric Opera’s take on The Merry Widow lacked a heroine of compelling allure in a production that came off as leaden when it should have been intoxicating. Photo Todd Rosenberg