Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Merry Widow: An Operetta for Merry Hearts

Our hearts were merry as we left our local cinema after viewing the Metropolitan Opera's production of The Merry Widow, presented live in HD. The big attraction to this performance was Renée Fleming, a soprano at the top of her form, who has the big advantage of being gorgeous as well as having a voice like liquid gold. Her performance was stellar. Not only did she bring out the beauty of the music, but her acting was as subtle and convincing as a film star's.

The role she was singing was designed to show off the talents of a mature diva. She plays Hanna, a wealthy and beguiling widow, who has her choice of fawning suitors, in gay Paree at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of being simpering or demanding, Ms. Fleming plays Hanna as gracious but slightly cynical, openly declaring that she knows her biggest attraction is her wealth. And her suitors love her all the more, they say, for her frankness.

Ms. Fleming gets to wear three marvelous costumes, all requiring corsets (when they first came on the market, a certain revealing type of corset was named for this popular operetta). As a widow, she starts out in a black gown with stylish gores.

The mourning gown
All photos in this post are internet grabs.
In the second act, she sings an aria from her homeland, a fictional Balkan country called Pontevedro, and for this she wears a vaguely Germanic looking gown in red and gold brocade.

The Pontevedran gown
In the third act, when she has to shine like a star against the colorful backdrop of a nightclub called Maxim's, she wears gold satin with puffed sleeves, low neckline, and complicated pleats.

The Maxim's gown
Ms. Fleming sings a duet with Kelli O'Hara
Her romantic counterpart is the one man who professes to be disinterested in her, Count Danilo, a dissolute, womanizing government minister with whom she had a romance in her youth; the part was sung by baritone Nathan Gunn. In terms of acting, this part is more demanding than the soprano's. Ms. Fleming gets to be glamorous and sympathetic straight through, but Gunn has to be comical one moment, and dashing the next. Danilo has to have rakish charm, and then give way to whole-hearted love. Mr. Gunn's voice is strong but flexible, his stance is bold, his acting is light and effortless.

Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo
The novelty of the production is that it was designed and directed by Susan Stroman, a very popular Broadway director and choreographer making her debut at the Met. She wanted to do this operetta because there are several opportunities for dancing, and she contrived to add a few more. She used professional dancers for some scenes (like an acrobatic cancan), but she also got all the singers to dance as well. The principal singers danced at Hanna's party in the second act, and in the final scene at Maxim's, several members of the women's chorus rustled up a pretty good cancan, complete with ruffled panties, while singing with their usual polish. All the production aspects—set, costumes, lighting—were attractive and clever without being cumbersome. Well, the jewelry was a little bulky, but …

Member of the Met chorus dancing and singing
Of course, the foundation of the operetta's long popularity is the enchanting music composed by Franz Lehár, an Austro-Hungarian composer; it premiered in 1905. The melodies are light as a feather, effervescent as champagne, sweet as whipped cream. The orchestra was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, whose manner was so spirited it was almost elfin.

One thing that is unusual for the Metropolitan Opera is spoken dialog. Some operas are sung all the way through, but usually there is a certain amount of vaguely melodic dialog. An operetta, however, depends on spoken banter between the musical numbers. It seemed odd at first, but the cast moved between speaking and singing so easily that I soon accepted it. Although Ms. Stroman loves the big production numbers, she was also very interested in presenting a romance between seasoned lovers, and she directed their spoken scenes with more concern for creating convincing and sympathetic characters than is usual for an opera. This is a feature where Live in HD may actually trump the live performance at the opera house. The Met stage is huge, and intimate banter could get lost, for those in the balcony, for instance, but the HD filming allows for close-up shots.

The aspect that won my heart from the beginning was that the opera was done in English! I couldn't resist reading the English subtitles, but I loved hearing my language sung. Not only was it in English, but the English had funny rhymes ("being sycophantic is not terribly romantic"), alliteration, and other poetic devices. The audience was cracking up and nudging each other. Jeremy Sams gets credit for the English version.

The main plot is about the effort of Baron Zeta to get Hanna to marry someone from her native Pontevedro, in order to keep her fortune in the country, which is facing dissolution otherwise. The Baron was played by veteran baritone Thomas Allen. Zeta is sort of a patriotic buffoon, but Allen's face is remarkably intelligent.

The subplot concerns Baron Zeta's relationship with his much younger wife,Valencienne, who carries on a flirtation with the young Frenchman Rosillon, under the guise of winning his support for her small country. All the other characters are concerned with helping her keep the romance secret from from the deluded baron, and saving their marriage. The role of Valencienne, which requires tricky singing and dancing, was played by Kelli O'Hara, who was trained in opera, but has previously been seen only on Broadway, where she is very popular. The role of Rosillon was played by tenor Alek Shrader; sometimes his performance seemed a little detached, but he was great at devotedly nuzzling Valencienne's neck.

Kelli O'Hara and Alek Shrader
A very strange, non-singing role by a character named Njegus, the Baron's secretary, gave a zany quality to the comedy. Comic actor Carson Elrod played him as the court jester, alternately bumbling and shrewd, but always affected and campy.

If you are a novice to opera, but intrigued, The Merry Widow would be the perfect place to start. It's so easy to like. It is frivolous, but refined. It is popular and sentimental, while being sophisticated and subtle. You come away feeling as merry as a wealthy widow who finally got her way.

If you should feel drawn to The Merry Widow, the opera is being re-broadcast, Wednesday, January 21 at 6:30 at your local cinema. Running time is 3 hours, and the cost is $18, for all ages.