Sunday, December 13, 2015

Opera Review: A big, bright "Merry Widow" at Chicago Lyric Opera

Act I opening waltz
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
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This weekend, I caught one of the last performances of Lyric Opera of Chicago's early Christmas present for opera lovers: a production of Lehar's durable 1905 comic operetta "The Merry Widow" that was as bubbly as champagne and as bright as a Christmas tree. With colorful sets and costumes, delightful dancing by the corps de ballet, and great performances all the way around, this was a tremendously entertaining show.

If you've never seen it either on stage or in one of its many film incarnations, know that the story of "The Merry Widow" revolves around Hanna, a youngish widow from the fictional Balkan nation of Pontrevedro, who became a millionaire when her much older husband died on their wedding night. Living the high life in Paris, she's actively courted by young men with their eyes on the twenty million franc prize, but she secretly yearns for her first love, Count Danilo, who was forbidden to marry her many years ago by his snobbish family.

Act II folk dancers
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Now a minor official in the Pontrevedrian embassy trying to drown his torch for Hanna in champagne and grisettes at Maxim's, Danilo is ordered by the ambassador, Baron Zeta, to woo Hanna and marry her, thereby keeping her millions from leaving the country. But, of course, Danilo's pride won't let him say those "three little words" to Hanna.

You know where this is all going, right?

There's also a subplot concerning Zeta's young wife Valencienne and her brief fling with a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon, and a recurring gag about the inability of Danilo's assistant, Njegus, to keep a secret. Needless to say, all ends happily with a big party at Maxim's.

Nicole Cabell
Photo: Devon Cass
When we saw the show Nicole Cabell had taken over the role of Hanna from famed soprano Renée Fleming for the show's closing weekend, and while her voice hadn't quite the power I would have preferred, it was uniformly lovely throughout its range. Those soft high notes in "Vilja," for example, were crystal clear. She was also a fine actress, making Hanna both seductive and self-mocking.

Noted baritone Thomas Hampson was a delight as Danilo, with a big voice and excellent comic sense. The quarter-century age difference between him and Ms. Cabell (Ms. Fleming is closer to his age) is something I found myself having to willfully ignore at first, but the two of them worked so well together than I was able to suspend disbelief without much effort.

For me, some of the best work was done by the supporting cast. Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor Michael Spyres were consistently bright and engaging as Valencienne and Rosillon. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi (the hilarious Dulcamara in Opera Theatre of St. Louis's "Elixir of Love" last summer) was the essence of comic pomposity as Baron Zeta and actor Jeff Dumas's Njegus was a classic study in comic timing. Baritone Paul La Rosa and tenor Jonathan Johnson also had many fine moments as Hannah's ineffectually dueling suitors Cascada and St. Brioche.

Act III, Heidi Stober and grisettes
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Michael Black's chorus has a lot to do in "Merry Widow" and they did it quite well. The opera was sung in English (witty translation by Jeremy Sams) and while projected text was available, the chorus's diction was good enough to make it largely unnecessary.

The many dance sequences were smartly choreographed by director Susan Stroman, whose substantial Broadway experience was evident in the canny theatricality that permeated this production. Down in the pit, Lyric Opera's music director Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra in a flawless reading of Lehar's unforgettable score

"Merry Widow" left closed on Sunday, December 13, but Lyric's season continues with the world premiere of "Bel Canto" (based on the novel by Ann Patchett) and, starting in January, Verdi's "Nabucco". For more information:

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