REVIEW: ‘The Merry Widow’ production rich in detail, true to original story

OPERA REVIEW: ‘The Merry Widow’ production rich in detail, true to original story

By Peter JacobiH-T Reviewer |
October 22, 2012

As things turned out, it didn’t seem to matter much that stage director Vincent Liotta moved “The Merry Widow’s” story line from the dawn of the 20th century to the 1920s; that the Parisian setting switched from belle epoch comfort to more edgy Art Deco; that the Grisettes, the show girls from Maxim’s, danced the Charleston rather than the can-can; that Liotta chose to classify Franz Lehar’s delectation as a musical because, in his studied view, it has more plot than the normal operetta.

It didn’t matter much because the sets created by Bill Forrester for Indiana University Opera Theater’s new production are striking: a spacious patio of the Pontevedran embassy overlooking the Eiffel Tower; a garden with pavilion outside the home of that Merry Widow of the title, one very wealthy Hanna Glawari; a sleek, nifty cabaret set up in Hanna’s residence for the last-act denouements.

The costumes by Linda Pisano are absolutely stunning: for the ladies, dresses and gowns of various lengths, in colors subtle and bright, favoring straight-line silhouettes and elegance; for the men, garb informal and formal, debonair, a la Fred Astaire; these, plus East European folk getups for a second act party.

In other words, the environment for this “Merry Widow” is eye-catching. The story remained intact, with dialogue freshly translated into English by Liotta and lyrics kept in the original German (for which subtitles were provided). Most importantly, the music was still Lehar’s, the magical array of catchy and fetching tunes that millions came to love generation after generation, ever since the operetta/musical/show premiered in 1905.

And fortunately, Opera Theater’s production, which had four weekend performances in the Musical Arts Center, took very good care of Lehar’s contributions, thanks to conductor Dale Rieling, the IU Symphony Orchestra, chorus master Walter Huff, the chorus Huff trained, and, of course, the two casts.

The pit orchestra equaled in size and quality what “The Merry Widow” gets when performed in major opera houses, far more and better than it likely earns for performances in other theatrical venues. Rieling made sure there was snap and precision from his players, and that there was Viennese lilt in profusion. He carefully kept his eyes on stage, too.

There, with Liotta’s astute guidance, as well, two well-chosen sets of singers took on the Lehar challenge. Their voices were amplified, which helped with spoken dialogue but not always with song. The conversations that moved the plot along carried reasonably well, thanks to the mics. But when those softer speaking voices switched to louder singing voices, particularly the women engaging high notes, occasional overload resulted, causing a modicum of unwelcome distortion.

As Hanna, Katherine Weber (on Thursday and Saturday) and Elizabeth Toy (Friday and Sunday) portrayed merry widows, indeed; what’s more, their sopranos soared, their thespian abilities took hold, and, when called upon, they danced nimbly. Actually, nimble footwork was required from most everyone. Liotta wanted a strong dance element; Gregory Graham, moonlighting from his current duties as resident choreographer for the musical “Billy Elliot,” made sure he got it and that the performers got the hang of it.

Tenor Brendon Marsh and baritone Christopher Grundy alternated as Prince Danilo, the free soul pledged to love often but never marry and who, in the end, does, not so much to help his native land, the cash-strapped Pontevedro, gain access to Hanna’s millions, but because he discovers he really loves her. They believably acted as the casual and conflicted hero, and they sang with gusto, particularly the repeated “I’m going to Maxim’s,” celebrating Danilo’s get-away-from-it-all hangout.

Baritones Brayton Arvin and Scott Stauffer caught much of the humor in their assigned character, the harried, easily duped ambassador, Baron Zeta. As the baron’s less-faithful-than-he-believes wife Valencienne, both Hanna Brammer and Christa Ruiz scored, this for their beauty of presence, stage manner and vocal contributions. Benjamin Werley and Will Perkins depicted Valencienne’s secret lover, Camille de Rosillon; their sweet tenors nicely fulfilled requirements.

Baritones David Gordon-Johnson and Mark Davies and tenors Benjamin Cortez and James Reynolds garnered laughs as, respectively, Cascada and St. Brioche, a pair of foppish, foolish Frenchmen seeking Hanna’s hand. As Baron Zeta’s secretary Njegus, Max Zander and Charles Lynn Stewart just about stole the show in the last act with a snazzy, top hat and cane song-and-dance routine.

Others in the casts — handling the roles of embassy denizen, wives, and Grisettes — added to the whole, as certainly did Marie Barrett, who completed designer Forrester’s stage pictures with ambient lighting.

Copyright: 2012

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