The Merry Widow

Metropolitan Opera
4 March 2000, 1:30 P.M.

The broadcast matinée of Lehár's The Merry Widow was a charming affair, at least for most of the audience in attendance. And if the number of sold-out performances signifies anything, it's that the audiences know a bit more than the bad-mouthers and nay-sayers. Some people like operetta, others don't. Those who don't usually have a lot more to say than those who do. Considering the reviews I have read-both on-line and in various magazines and newspapers-I am opening myself up to attacks, both vicious and self-righteous . . . which are not allowed on this site, anyway. So, I guess that those of you who feel that my article is an attack on your excellent taste and high standards can attack me back via E-mail.

Most disclaimers dispensed with, here's a final one, and then let's get to the performance:  I shall first say that I do not think any American or English or French or Italian production of this operetta can provide us with the kind of gemütlichkeit or charm found in a Viennese production, with Viennese orchestra members, a Viennese conductor, and singers highly adept at, and experienced in this style of musical expression. That said, however, I found that the performance Dennis and I attended had a great deal of zest and charm.

I am not listing the cast; I will, however, discuss many of them individually. I do wish to mention, however, that the production team is mostly British, with the exception of the German lighting designer and the French choreographer, who have done a great deal of work in England, and the conductor, who is also English. I would say that most of the cast was American, with the exception of Mr. Domingo. All of them acquitted themselves very well. Furthermore, they were obviously having a grand time doing so.

The Met is very fortunate to have Anthony Laciura as its major tenor comprimario. Nothing I have seen or/and heard him do is anything less than top-notch, both vocally and histrionically. I have nothing but pure praise for his total performance, and especially of his Act III number with the grisettes.

In my estimation, the lyric mezzo voice is not ideal for the role of Hanna Glawari. I prefer a lyric or lyric-spinto soprano, the same type of voice that would sing Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus. I don't think the orchestration lends itself to the lyric mezzo voice, and that is why Frederika von Stade was difficult to hear in some of the major ensembles. I would blame this neither on her age nor the conductor, but on the color and timbre of her voice. Her wit and artistry, however, carried her through the role very well. I guess I date myself when I say that I would prefer a Schwarzkopf, a Gueden or a Rothenberger-or even a Dorothy Kirsten-in this role. But, all things considered, I found von Stade's performance very satisfying, and it was wonderful to hear and see her on stage again.

Born to a family of zarzuela singers, Placido Domingo had no difficulties understanding both the vocal and histrionic requirements of Count Danilo. In recent years, this role has been sung more often by a baritone than a tenor. But tenors there have been. The program notes mention Jan Keipura, and I would not be surprised if Richard Tauber had sung the role at least once in his long career. Domingo was a fine Danilo: urbane, sophisticated, highly self-indulgent, yet aware that his days as a playboy soon had to come to an end. In such a piece as Lehár's, the sheer size of his voice can be totally overpowering. To his credit, this great artist who has sung Mozart as well as Wagner and everything in between, kept his voice in perfect balance with the voices of his colleagues. I remember reading some rather disparaging comments about Domingo's heavy Spanish accent. I wonder if the originators of those comments are equally disturbed by his accent in German, French, Italian. Or are they disturbed by the English-accented French, Italian and German of many of our American and British singers on the opera stage or in the concert hall?

As Valencienne, the ambassador's wife in love with a young Frenchman, Emily Pulley was a great discovery to me. Her voice is large, clear, beautiful and expressive. Furthermore, she does a mean can-can and a surprisingly good cartwheel. In the not-too-distant future, she should be singing the title role. She was perfectly matched by the Rossillon of Paul Groves whom I first heard as an impressive Ferrando opposite Renée Fleming's Fiordiligi a few seasons ago. I think he has the capability of developing both the sophistication and intensity of Nicolai Gedda, who recorded this role at least twice. Meanwhile, his voice is quite lovely and capable of overcoming any tessitura problems this role might present. And John Del Carlo's bass-baritone voice and great height were perfect for the role of Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador.

I wonder, however, why the demeanor of the grisettes had to be patterned after the night-club chorus women in Cabaret? Couldn't they be sexy and charming, as they usually are in most show scenes from Maxim's depicted on stage and in the movies? Here they are simply sexy and vulgar, and lend a jarring note to the production.

That brings us to the production. As usual at the Met, the show was somewhat overproduced, with walls swinging open and a grand-entry stairway from no-where being wheeled on stage for Hannah's first entrance. Was she flown in and dropped on top of that stairway, or did she climb up it to walk down it? The Act I salon in the Pontevedrian embassy was a hoot, with its widely cracked wall featuring hundreds of antlers. Maybe that's why the country was going bankrupt: it was completely depleting itself of livestock. I did, however, find the two shades of red shared by most of the ladies dancing at the reception, a bit unimaginative-especially next to the stunning gowns worn by both Valencienne and Hannah. The garden of Hannah's mansion, with its stragically-placed pavillion was perfectly appropriate, leaving lots of room for people to move around and the dancers to do their turns.

I shall not comment on the choreography, especially of the "Pontevedrian" dances, since I would not know where to start. The Act I waltzes, however, were smooth and impressive, especially when performed by the singers. The Act III replica of the entrance and dance floor at Maxim's was set up as a stage-within-a-stage, with the rest of the cast members serving as a downstage audience with their backs to us. The final capitulation and waltz of Hannah and Danilo takes place on that stage replica. It was very well done by both Flicka and Placido. Furthermore, it was clear that everyone onstage was having a grand old time, . . . and so was the audience, especially yours truly.

Howard in Brooklyn

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

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