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The Merry Widow

Los Angeles
Los Angeles opera
04/28/2007 -  3, 6, 9, 12, 19, 20, 23, and 26 May 2007
Franz Lehár: The Merry Widow
Susan Graham (Anna Glawari), Rod Gilfrey (Count Danilo), Jake Gardner (Baron Mirko Zeta), Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz (Valencienne), Eric Cutler (Camille de Rosillon), Malcolm MacKenzie (Vicomte Cascada), Greg Fedderly (Raoul de St. Brioche), Jason Graae (Njegus), Jamie Offenbach (Bogdanowitsch), Jay Brian Winnick (Kromow), Brian Calì (Pritschitsch), Rena Harms (Sylviane), Elizabeth Brackenbury (Olga), Carol Swarbrick (Praskowia), Tami Tappan Damiano (Zozo), Mark Capri (Maître d’hôtel), Andrea Beasom (Lolo), Bradley Benjamin (Dodo), Jean Michelle Sayeg (Jou-Jou), Yvette Tucker (Frou-Frou), Leslie Stevens (Clo-Clo), Alison Mixon (Margot), Yvette Tucker and Shell Bauman (Solo Dancers – Act II), Lisa Gillespie and Jonathan Sharp (Solo Dancers – Act III)
Lofti Mansouri (Director), Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Thierry Bosquet (Costumer Designer), Mary Louise Geiger (Lighting Designer), Peggy Hickey (Choreographer), Eric Sean Fogel (Assistant Choreographer/Dance Captain)
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster), William Vendice (Los Angeles Opera Chorus Master
Sebastian Lang-Lessing (Conductor)

Following a paternal footpath Franz Lehár’s musical acumen began while playing in his father’s military band that eventually led him into playing in a musical infantry ensemble, taking him to the cities of Trieste, Budapest, and finally Vienna. His studies centered in the Prague Conservatory with brief tutelage under the famous Czech composer, Antonín Dvoøák.

Army bands were a familiar and secure surrounding for Lehár, but toward the turn of the century he made an unsuccessful attempt at Russian opera with his 1896 work, Kukuška. Although the opera was a failure at its premiere in Leipzig, Germany, Franz Lehár scored triumphantly six years later with the famous waltz composition, Gold und Silber. This gave impetus to venture into the genre of operetta where he began with the two favored works of Wiener Frauen and Der Rastelbinder followed by two of less prominence before the ever popular Die lustige Witwe that premiered on December 30, 1905 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.

This year Los Angeles has the fortunate opportunity to see and hear one of the most beloved and endearing operettas ever written, Die lustige Witwe, known at LA Opera as The Merry Widow. Set in turn of the century Paris this three act Lehár score finds a common vein of art-nouveau design with distinctly different sets that the modern day composer would greatly appreciate.

The center of attention is none other than Anna Glawari, played by the talented Susan Graham, as the Pontevedrian widow in search of a husband who is more interested in true love than her mere fortune. Particularly poignant is Graham’s rendition of “Vilja”, the story of a wood nymph, sung with great passion and elegance. The crowning touch comes on the last note when Ms. Graham opts to sing a higher fifth instead of the traditional third with incredible sotto voce. A tug and pull relationship ensnares Anna with Count Danilo, performed by Rod Gilfrey, throughout the entire story where countless duets arise.

Subplots involve the pristine tenor voice of Eric Cutler as the inexorable Camille de Rosillon in search of love with the married Valencienne as performed by petite Norwegian/Italian soprano Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz. Yet the varying combinations of duets amongst the four top protagonists lead us to a sense of inconsistency as we struggle to hear the less than audible Norberg-Schulz and Gilfrey, countering with the beaming and confident declarations sung by Graham and Cutler. Oddly enough, it would appear more fitting to see the latter pair end up together instead of Lehár’s original intendeds.

Bracketing the four principals is the wonderful talent of Jake Gardner’s Baron Mirko Zeta, the ring leader of the men folk and his attempts to unravel the Balkan feminist infidels. The highly entertaining and hilarious Njegus, portrayed by on and off-Broadway Jason Graae, has the audience in stitches with his endless canter that begins to wear a little too fast too soon. This rendition gets to the point of making The Merry Widow bombastically pathetic. Nonetheless, his acting and singing in both the clanmen’s, “Yes, the study of women is heavy” in Act II and his satirical “Puttin’ on the Ritz” spectacle at Maxim’s in Act III brings smiles to one and all.

This operetta would not be complete without credit and mention to the superb cast of dancers, grisettes, partygoers, and Pontevedrians that add sparkling touches throughout. Of particular note is Peggy Hickey’s fabulous choreography that demonstrates once again her ingenuity and interest, especially in the Can-Can scene at Maxim’s. Supplementing her talents are the creative energies of Eric Sean Fogel as Dance Captain in all three acts, set amidst the splendid sets designed by Michael Yeargan, associate professor in stage design at the Yale School of Drama.

Stunning achievement goes to the gifted Thierry Bosquet as Costumer Designer where his artistry presides over the entire evening. Particularly stunning is his effect with black and white costumes in Act I, then changing to hues of emerald greens for folkloric costumes in Act II, followed by the vibrancy of black and red in the third and final act. Befitting is Yeargan’s coordinated color scenery with costumes that make the work so pleasingly attractive. Following LA Opera’s 2005 production of the entertaining operetta, The Grand Duchess, Mary Louise Geiger once again displays her imagination and aura as Lighting Designer to spawn magical moments that punctuate the luscious score.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s conducting is apropos with attention to the finer details of musical endings including arias, duets, choruses, and end of acts. Undoubtedly, the music is pleasing, but still leaves us unfulfilled. The Merry Widow is synonymous with bouncy and peppy, yet this production demonstrates a dragging tempo in this Lofti Mansouri production that never quite elevates the core cast to its maximum potential (with undoubted exception in Act III with the grisettes and waiters). Commentary aside, Mr. Mansouri still manages to pull off a respectable performance.

While current attempts are being made to make opera more “relevant” to a wider audience without alienating core constituents, some caution needs notation. Being entertained by an English production is convenient, its easy, but something is lost in translation. The Merry Widow or may I say, Die lustige Witwe sung in German adds an enchanting lilt that reigns over any other imaginable version.

A genuine sense of spontaneity, spark, and dynamics is missing in this LA Opera work. Those new to the wonderful world of opera will likely leave with contentment. Those with a trained ear of the Czech-Hungarian tunes and dances of this delightful Lehár work may be yearning for a chance to return to the “good ‘ol days”.

With that being said, The Merry Widow has a plethora of talent that is displayed in pleasing fashion. If you are drawn to operetta, consider the performance. Though in need of a jump start, it does not preclude the wonders of Franz Lehár for all of us to enjoy.

Christie Grimstad



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