Monday, February 16, 2015

The Merry Widow: Broadway at the Met

Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Franz Lehár’s 1905 Viennese operetta The Merry Widow has been filmed twice in English, three times if you count Erich von Stroheim’s perverse and entertaining silent version. But it isn’t revived very often on stage, so I anticipated the version in the Metropolitan Opera season, which the Met offered as part of its Live in HD series last month, with pleasure. This production cross-pollinates the worlds of the opera and the musical theatre. It stars opera diva Renée Fleming opposite Broadway leading lady Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn, an opera singer who sometimes appears in concert versions of musicals; the new translation is by Jeremy Sams, who furnished the best translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that anyone has done to date; and the staging is by the explosively talented – and prolific - director-choreographer Susan Stroman. But though this Merry Widow has its points, it turns out to be something of a disappointment: tired and sagging in the middle, its fin-de-siècle exuberance strained, the farce strenuously overplayed. I couldn’t tell whether Stroman, whose recent stage work hasn’t garnered the enthusiastic reception she once drew, was trying too hard or whether she just wasn’t a match for the frothy, high-comic style of the material. I hope it’s the latter; I wouldn’t like to think that the ungenerous response to her dazzlingly inventive work on Bullets Over Broadway likely a ricochet effect from the way the culture lashed out at Woody Allen around that time – has shaken her confidence.

As written (Viktor Léon and Leo Stein penned the German libretto, an adaptation of a mid-nineteenth-century comedy by the French playwright Henri Meilhac) the piece is thin but charming, with music that may not rival the great comic operas but is the equal of a strong Broadway musical score. The setting is Paris, where the embassy of the tiny, bankrupt Balkan country Pontevedro is worried that its richest citizen, Hanna Glawari, the still-young widow of the title (played by Fleming), may remain here with her fortune. Two Frenchmen, the Vicomte Cascada (Jeff Mattsey) and Raoul de St. Brioche (Alexander Lewis), are paying court to her, so the Ponteverdian ambassador Baron Mirko Zeta (Sir Thomas Allen), instructs one of his countrymen, the hedonistic military attaché Count Danilo Danilovitch (Gunn), to get her to marry him. But he’s reluctant, because he and Hanna have a romantic history: he wooed her once, but she was only a poor farmer’s daughter at the time and his uncle forbade the match. In Ernst Lubitsch’s 1934 film, Maurice Chevalier, at his most disarming, plays Danilo and Jeanette MacDonald, before her collaboration with Nelson Eddy at M-G-M transformed her into the Iron Butterfly, is the widow (called Sonia in the movie). The team that fashioned it, including screenwriters Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda and Rodgers and Hart, who provided the new lyrics, give it a most appealing moonstruck silliness. (The remake, with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, shows up occasionally on TCM, but I’ve never been tempted to tune in.) They also cut the operetta to about an hour and a half. Obviously the Met has to stage it uncut, but it’s a tall order to sustain the effervescence in three full acts, and the show feels overstuffed. Even Julian Crouch’s sets, at least the first two, are a trifle glacéed. They come to life in the third act, when he gets to evoke the celebrated club Maxim’s in Art Nouveau style. The gifted lighting designer Paule Constable, whose work I’ve often admired on the London stage, shares credit for the visual wit and splendor of this act.

Kelli O’Hara and  Renée Fleming (Photo: Sara Krulwich)
The singing, unsurprisingly, is lovely, and any opportunity to see Fleming in a soprano role she hasn’t previously sampled justifies the effort. Swathed in a veritable assembly line of whipped-cream gowns by William Ivey Long (my favorite is the creation with ornamented roseate sleeves that she steps into for the second half of act two, after losing the peasant outfit Hannah wears to commemorate “Pontevedro Night” at her Paris villa), Fleming accentuates Hanna’s light-hearted ironies, refusing to take the text too seriously while applying her usual mix of delicacy and robustness to the Lehár music. The highlight of the evening – as, I think, it always should be – is “Vilja,” near the top of the second act, which follows some Balkan-ish dances and is meant to be a setting of an old Pontevedrian folk tale about the courtship of a woodsman and a wood nymph. Fleming renders it with exquisite clarity, treading playfully through the fairy-tale lyric until she reaches the plaintive, doomed-romantic part of the story (which is in the Swan Lake-La Sylphide category). She and Gunn sound fine together and they have a glancing sexual connection, though he’s not so great at meeting the technical demands of the comedy; he tends to mug instead. (Danilo shows up sloshed in act one; Gunn’s performance improves considerably when he stops trying to play drunk.)

The opera-trained O’Hara meets the requirements of her charming second-soprano part, the baron’s wife Valencienne, who is dallying with a Frenchman, Camille de Rosilion (Alek Shrader), behind her husband’s back. O’Hara and Shrader have three enjoyable duets. This is a sweet role for O’Hara, though the Maxim’s scene, where she dances with the “grisettes,” reminded me that, much as I love watching her, whenever she plays rowdy, game dames (whether briefly, as here, or in more extended ways, in The Pajama Game and Nice Work If You Can Get It), I always feel she’s transcending the miscasting. There’s no one to complain about in the supporting cast except for the musical-theatre clown Carson Elrod (Peter and the Starcatcher, All in the Timing), whose performance as Njegus, the Baron’s aide, has a stock-company familiarity. And despite the lack of inspiration in the production overall, I’m glad to have seen it, for Fleming and O’Hara especially and in order to hear the music conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and framed by expert voices. When the orchestra strikes up “The Merry Widow Waltz” – even if you have first to banish thoughts of Joseph Cotten as the “Merry Widow” murderer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – the effect is tonic.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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