The Merry Widow, composed by Austrian Franz Lehar, is a light, frolicsome piece that concerns the romantic and monetary intrigues of a group of European aristocrats living the high life in fin de siecle Paris -- right before the world hurtles into the conflagration of war. That's what we know in hindsight, of course. The operetta premiered in 1905 and this version is set roughly between 1913 or early 1914 on the eve of World War I. I was surprised when the first performer opened his mouth to sing in English, rather than the original German or French. While I did later find it listed in the program, none of the earlier opera materials I had seen had mentioned it. So, for opera-holics who aren't comfortable with the language barrier, this production of The Merry Widow is much more akin to musical theater as it is both in English and has quite a bit of spoken dialogue. There is one more performance tomorrow (Feb. 19 at 2:00 p.m.).
The widow in question is Hanna, whose fellow Pontevedrans in the embassy set (vaguely Slavic in character) are worried that she has come to Paris to find a husband, perhaps a foreigner, which means that her vast fortune could leave the debt-stricken country and cause a general economic collapse. Baron Zeta decides that is is imperative that she marry within Pontevedro and picks Count Danilo as the preferred suitor, the complication there being that he is Hanna's former lover who was forbidden to marry her when she was a poor country girl. Even though they are truly in love, pride on both sides causes them to defy the Baron's wishes as they spar over past wrongs. Meanwhile the Baron's wife Valencienne is carrying on an affair with the young French Count Rosillon under his nose, though he refuses to see it.
The fact that the show was presented in English opened up the opportunity for Director Michael Cavanagh to have a very free hand in the dialogue, and it is chock full of jokes, rather anachronistic in nature, making pointed references to our current economic woes and even managing to work in a one-liner about the sunken Italian cruise ship. One of the "party girls" is named in the program as "Paris Kardalohan" (get it!), and her sole purpose is to deliver up dippy, drunken commentary on the proceedings in the jarringly modern lingo of the Paris Hilton set. The comedy is broad, and it sometimes threatened to send the whole production into weirdly Monty Pythonesque territory, which I have to say, I found mildly irritating. I want to escape my disappointing world of terrible news, annoying faux celebrities, and economic hardship and instead, I get a stick rattled in my cage in the form of not terribly subtle jokes. And that brings me to another quibble. The ending of course, brings the true lovers Hanna and Danilo together and the Pontevedran economy is saved. I fully expected that the subplot between the Baron, his flighty wife Valencienne, and her lover Rosillon would result in the wife being restored respectfully to her husband since she was obviously so conflicted about her duty. But no, I was again surprised when the Baron offered a peaceable divorce and she flew to Rosillon's arms. What? Something about that didn't seem right, and having read the Met's synopsis of the finale, I find that this twist, too, was tacked on. Maybe that seemed like a more modern, romantic outcome, but again the curmudgeon in me just found it not ringing true, and as much of a buffoon as the Baron is made out to be, at least he truly loves his wife (undeserving as she is) and he is very kind to her. Well, so much for loyalty in marriage.
But let's talk about the music and singing, thankfully preserved. The widow Hanna is brightly played by Emily Pulley -- smart and confident, her only vulnerability is her love for Danilo. There were a few times that she seemed to run out of air or swallow the very last syllable of a line, but otherwise she was very good. Christopher Feigum's Danilo was the performance I enjoyed the most -- he expressed the right degree of swagger, occasional loucheness, tenderness, and jealousy in his battle of wits with Hanna and his rich baritone was beautifully on display in the song, "You'll find me at Maxim's." I also enjoyed Abigail Paschke as Valencienne and Stephanos Tsirakoglou as the Baron. Overall the cast was fine, but in a show with a lot of dancing, let's just say they are very good singers.
And now for that elephant in the room -- the replacement orchestra and its conductor Jason Raff. I thought they acquitted themselves well, without blowing me away. There seemed to be a general impulse in the audience to show the orchestra some love, due to their rather uncomfortable position in the proceedings -- this before they had played a single note. There were more empty seats in the house than for the previous two operas -- but I don't know how much of that represents solidarity with the union musicians of the Louisville Orchestra and how much is due simply to The Merry Widow perhaps not being as much of a draw as one of the classic grand operas. I will relate one little anecdote from -- where else -- the Ladies Room. One hears such fascinating things standing in line for the toilet. At the end of Act I, I was behind two women discussing their feelings about the picketing musicians outside and the replacements inside. They both seemed overly impressed with the pit orchestra. Fair enough. One said that she didn't like all that "heckling" as she came in (I passed them too -- they had signs and fliers but seemed polite on the whole; indeed, I would have been more taken aback had they not been there expressing their viewpoint, under the circumstances). I suppose, if one counts being offered a flier as heckling, then the characterization is accurate. So the other woman sniffs, "Typical!" in much the same tone as the lady of the manor would use to say, "Peasants!" Typical of what exactly, I wondered? Of ruffian cellists and like bohemians who graduate from music conservatories? Unionists in general? There went another stick rattling in my cage. I stayed away from the ladies bathroom after that.
While I enjoyed aspects of The Merry Widow, there was something a little off for me the entire evening. Part of the appeal of these frothy romances in which all's well that ends well is their complete unreality -- a little fantasy world in which we can laugh at the silliness of lovers and even cuckolded husbands, everyone costumed in the glorious gossamer and feathers of bygone days. Thrusting in an ending that doesn't seem to fit with the general conventions of the time and then having to reconcile other contemporary influences with the period being depicted just didn't work for me. It was rather like a big puffy souffle, tantalizing when it emerges from the oven, only to deflate when someone sticks a fork in it.