By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times
A ridiculously rich widow and loads of suitors. Expatriates from a wacky, made-up country worthy of W.C. Fields. A straying wife and a clueless husband. A visit to the amusingly sinful world of Maxim’s.
These are some of the silly, wonderful ingredients that come together in Franz Lehar’s classic 1905 Parisian operetta “The Merry Widow (“Die Lustige Witwe”), which is brought brilliantly to life in a revival that opened Saturday evening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
‘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
Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman oversaw this production, which premiered in 2014 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, delivering just the right doses of goofy schmaltz, frothy fun and Belle Époque elegance.
There is nothing updated or experimental here. Instead, Stroman opted for a traditional staging that simply and successfully showcased the operetta’s interplay of comedy, Old World charm and aw-shucks romance.
Stroman is also a top-flight choreographer, and movement has been an essential component in many of her productions. That is certainly the case here, with colorful, zestful dancing enlivening every section from the refined ballroom turns in Act 1 to the crowd-pleasingly naughty can-cans in in Act 3.
Kudos to the 18 fine dancers, who along with the cast of more than 20 and a couple of dozen or so chorus members keep the stage teeming with activity and give this production the feeling of 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 striking backdrop depicting Sacré Coeur and Montmartre. Providing an ideal visual complement are the opulent, 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 to showcase celebrated soprano Renée Fleming in the title role, but she proved to be something of a disappointment here. She seemed a little tentative as the evening began and never fully occupied the character of Hanna 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 in Hanna’s final song, “Love, you heaven and earth,” which was interpolated from another Lehar work, did the audience get a real sense of the vocal richness and expressiveness that have made her famous.
Stealing much of her thunder was soprano Heidi Stober, who lit up the role of Valencienne, the flirtatious, ever-adventurous wife of Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador. She reveled 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 the time of his life as Count Danilo Danilovich, a bon vivant and ex-lover of Hanna who struggles to voice the feelings he still harbors for her.
A terrific comic actor, Hampson sculpted a rich, boisterous, audience-pleasing portrayal of the suave, 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 own opposite Stober as Camille de Rosillon; bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, who offered a lively turn as 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 horrific events over the weekend in Paris, striking just the right tone as he saluted the City of Light and offered the company’s condolences to the victims. The audience then rose, as the orchestra performed “La Marseillaise.”
Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago freelance writer.