Singers, dancers in perpetual motion in Susan Stroman’s grand ‘Merry Widow’

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By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times

A ridiculously rich widow and loads of suitors. Expatriates from a wacky, made-up countryworthy of W.C. Fields. A straying wife and a clueless husband. A visit to the amusingly sinfulworld of Maxim’s.

These are some of the silly, wonderful ingredients that come together in Franz Lehar’s classic1905 Parisian operetta “The Merry Widow (“Die Lustige Witwe”), which is brought brilliantlyto life in a revival that opened Saturday evening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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‘THE MERRY WIDOW’ RECOMMENDED When: Through Dec. 13 Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $39-$299 Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

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Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman oversaw this production, which premiered in 2014at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, delivering just the right doses of goofy schmaltz, frothyfun and Belle Époque elegance.

There is nothing updated or experimental here. Instead, Stroman opted for a traditional stagingthat simply and successfully showcased the operetta’s interplay of comedy, Old World charmand aw-shucks romance.

Stroman is also a top-flight choreographer, and movement has been an essential component inmany of her productions. That is certainly the case here, with colorful, zestful dancing enliveningevery section from the refined ballroom turns in Act 1 to the crowd-pleasingly naughty can-cansin in Act 3.

Kudos to the 18 fine dancers, who along with the cast of more than 20 and a couple of dozen or sochorus members keep the stage teeming with activity and give this production the feelingof a show in the grand sense of that word.

Hewing to the traditional flavor of this production, Julian Crouch’s scenery is an opulent,beautiful yet appropriately conventional mix of set pieces and painted drops, including a strikingbackdrop depicting Sacré Coeur and Montmartre. Providing an ideal visual complement are theopulent, vibrant costumes by William Ivey Long, from sumptuous ball gowns to the saucy,flowing dresses of the can-can dancers.

No doubt a big reason that Lyric Opera and the Met wanted to stage this work was the desire toshowcase celebrated soprano Renée Fleming in the title role, but she proved to be something of adisappointment here.She seemed a little tentative as the evening began and never fully occupied the character ofHanna Glawari. Fleming did not exude enough of the star power, which she obviously possesses,to really command the stage.

At the same time, her singing often came across as under-powered and a bit thin. Only inHanna’s final song, “Love, you heaven and earth,” which was interpolated from another Leharwork, did the audience get a real sense of the vocal richness and expressiveness that have madeher famous.

Heidi Stober and Patrick Carfizzi steal scenes in “The Merry Widow.” | Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Heidi Stober and Patrick Carfizzi steal scenes in “The Merry Widow.” | Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Stealing much of her thunder was soprano Heidi Stober, who lit up the role of Valencienne, theflirtatious, ever-adventurous wife of Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador. Shereveled in Lehar’s comic antics and could hardly have been more at home in the operetta style,handling every aria and duet with polish and élan.

The evening’s real star, though, was baritone Thomas Hampson, who appeared to be having thetime of his life asCount Danilo Danilovich, a bon vivant and ex-lover of Hanna whostruggles to voice the feelings he still harbors for her.

A terrific comic actor, Hampson sculpted a rich, boisterous, audience-pleasing portrayal of thesuave, self-indulgent yet caring count — a role that provides a superb showcase for his full,resonant voice, which remains in excellent form.

Also deserving note were Michael Spyres, a sure-voiced tenor who more than holds his ownopposite Stober as Camille de Rosillon; bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, who offered a lively turnas Zeta, and Jeff Dumas, who serves as the production’s comic sparkplug as Zeta’s assistant,Njegus.

Lyric music director Andrew Davis provided solid support in the pit, assuring sure-footed,ebullient pacing throughout and nicely capturing the music’s light, bubbly yet refined feel.

In introductory remarks from the stage, Lyric general director Anthony Freud noted the horrificevents over the weekend in Paris, striking just the right tone as he saluted the City of Light andoffered the company’s condolences to the victims. The audience then rose, as the orchestraperformed “La Marseillaise.”

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago freelance writer.

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