Review: The Merry Widow (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

| November 19, 2015

Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson star in Lyric Opera's "The Merry Widow," music by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)          
      
The Merry Widow 

Music by Franz Lehár
Libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map)
thru Dec 13  |  tix: $20-$249  |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets   
    


    
  

The Lyric offers Chicago a sumptuous holiday treat

  

Renée Fleming stars as Hanna Glawari in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Andrew Cioffi)

    
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
    
The Merry Widow

Review by Jacob Davis

As Chicago fills up with glittering Christmas decorations, it could hardly be a better time for the arrival of Susan Stroman’s production of The Merry Widow. Franz Lehár’s waltz-heavy operetta features sumptuous designs, energetic classical music, and a light, heart-warming story, which makes it a reliable favorite during the holiday season, and a perfect match both for Stroman’s talent as a choreographer. An English translation by Jeremy Sams avoids the cornball humor which sometimes mars Merry Widow productions, and though audience members may still find themselves relying on the supertitles during the sung portions of the play, the spoken-parts are rendered accessible and even funny, making for a completely delightful evening.

Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson star in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)The story revolves around the French embassy of a small, fictional country called Pontevedro, and the community of expats living there. The ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta (Patrick Carfizzi) confides to his staff that Pontevedro is in dire financial peril. The country is depending on the assets of Hanna Glawari (Lyric creative consultant Renée Fleming through November 28, then Nicole Cabell), the commoner widow of a very rich gentleman. If she marries a loyal member of the embassy staff, Pontevedro may be saved yet, but if she marries one of the Parisians vying for her hand and moves her money out of the country, all is lost. There is one staffer who has a good chance of wooing her: the aging, yet still dashing, Count Danilo (Thomas Hampson), but he and the widow have a strained past. Years ago, they were engaged, but his family did not approve, and he retreated into a profligate life at Paris’s raunchy nightclub, Chez Maxim, while she went on to a loveless, but brief, marriage to the wealthy aristocrat Glawari.

Meanwhile, Baron Mirko’s wife, Valencienne (Heidi Stober), has been conducting an illicit affair with a French admirer of her own, Camille de Rosillon (Michael Spyres). He writes “I love you” on her fan, which promptly gets lost, causing them to fear being discovered. Danilo agrees to attend social gatherings with Hannah and chase away the Parisians, but is still too proud to admit his love for her, much to her frustration. The two of them are also quickly mixed up in the business with the fan, leading to an escalating series of misunderstandings and jealousies. With several people’s reputations and happiness on the line, as well as Pontevedro’s future, it’s up to Hannah to save the day.

Heidi Stober and Patrick Carfizzi in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg) Thomas Hampson in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)Heidi Stober in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)Jonathan Johnson and Paul La Rosa in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg) Michael Spyres and Heidi Stober in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)Renée Fleming in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)

As much as the dance-heavy score is suited to Stroman, the role of Hannah is perfect for Renée Fleming. Brave, self-sacrificing, clever, mature in her desires, and insistent on getting her due, Fleming’s acting encapsulates all the qualities which allow Hannah to carry one of the most popular works in the operetta genre. Though she was a bit soft during the patter song at the end of Act II, her rendition of Vilja’s song is absolutely lovely, as is her “Love, live forever,” which Lehár wrote for a different operetta, but is appropriate to The Merry Widow both in theme and its low tone. Fleming shares major duets in each act with Hampson which are lovely in their distinct ways; the first jaunty, the second humorously martial, and the third a well-earned bit of sappiness. Hampson, too, has several funny moments and is an accomplished actor. His early song praising Chez Maxim is a crucial moment in establishing the show’s light, fun tone, and recurs throughout without ever getting old.

Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson star in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)The secondary couple of Camille and Valencienne are also highly accomplished performers, with Spyres demonstrating his sweet tenor voice, and Stober joining in the elaborate cabaret dances in Act III. Stroman has brought in several local dancers, who first appear in the acrobatic folk-inspired dances of Act II, and then make their silly, ribald can-canning the focus of Act III. Local actors also play most of the speaking parts, including Jeff Dumas, recently recovered from an injury, as the bumbling courier Njegus. Stroman wisely underplays these comic bits, allowing them to build naturally and maintain some semblance of a coherent world for the story to take place in. Also increasingly impressive over the course of the show are the design elements. Julian Crouch’s sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes, which look beautiful as the environment of the embassy in Act I, albeit a little flat under close scrutiny, become a more elaborate blend of rich, dark colors in Act II as they represent the garden party, and are astonishing in Act III, at Chez Maxim. The Lyric’s production is a wondrous spectacle for the eyes as well as the ears.

While firmly in the genre of entertainment and a product of the Belle Epoch, The Merry Widow proves that there is an artistry involved in creating beauty. In one way, this is an awkward time for a feel-good story set in Paris. Security at the Lyric is unusually tight at the moment, not to an obnoxious extent, but it’s noticeable. On the other hand, this is exactly when a simple operetta about older people falling in love is most welcome. The Merry Widow has a strong following among classical music aficionados, but this production is also an excellent chance for people who are younger or not regular Lyric-goers to experiment. The talent, both local and from out-of-town, are superb, and the production values are unparalleled.

  
Rating: ★★★★
  
   

The Merry Widow continues through December 13th at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map), with performances November 20, 23, 25 & 28 at 7:30pm; December 3, 9, 11 & 13 at 2pm.  Tickets are $20-$249, and are available by phone (312-827-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LyricOpera.org(Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)

Renée Fleming stars as Hanna Glawari in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Andrew Cioffi)Renee Fleming in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)

Photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi


  

artists

cast

Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari – through November 28), Nicole Cabell (Hanna Glawari – Dec 9-13), Thomas Hampson (Count Danilo Danilovich), Heidi Stober (Valencienne), Michael Spyres (Camille de Rosillon), Patrick Carfizzi (Baron Mirko Zeta), Jeff Dumas (Njegus), Jonathan Johnson (Raoul de St. Brioche), Paul La Rosa (Viscount Cascada), Michael Weber (Bogdanovich), Jonathan Weir (Kromov), Fred Zimmerman (Pritschitsch), McKinley Carter (Sylviane), Jennie Sophia (Olga), Genevieve Thiers (Praskovia), Annelise Baker (Frou-Frou), Ariane Dolan (Lolo), Jen Gorman (Clo-Clo), Catherine Hamilton (Margot), Alison Mixon (Dodo), Emily Pynenburg (Jou-Jou), Jonah D. Winston (Maître D’), Shannon Alvis, Sajen Banister, Ellen Green, Lauren Kias, Ashley Klinger, Kristina Larson-Hauk, Kristin Schoen-René, Rachel Switzer, Jeffery B. Hover, Jr., Tom Mattingly, Jamy Meek, Mathew Prescott (principal dancers), Alyssa Sarnoff, J. P. Tenuta (understudy dancers)

behind the scenes

Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Susan Stroman (director, choreographer), Julian Crouch (set designer), William Ivey Long (costume designer), Paule Constable (original lighting designer), Chris Maravich (lighting designer for Lyric), Mark Grey (sound designer), Michael Black (chorus master), Sarah Hatten (wigmaster and makeup designer), Joshua Buscher (associate choreographer), Lauren Kadel (assistant choreographer), Dan Rigazzi (associate director), Todd Rosenberg, Andrew Cioffi (photos)

Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)Renée Fleming stars as Hanna Glawari in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, directed by Susan Stroman. (photo credit: Todd Rosenberg)

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Category: 2015 Reviews, Civic Opera House, Holiday Show, Jacob Davis, Lyric Opera, Opera

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