Review: A VERY MERRY WIDOW at Winter Opera

By: Nov. 01, 2016

St. Louis' Winter Opera presents a gorgeous production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. This is perhaps the world's most popular operetta.

Lehar's masterpiece appeared in 1905 and it epitomizes the waltz-obsessed romantic world of pre-war Vienna. It was one of the world's greatest theatrical triumphs, making Lehar a millionaire. It received twelve-thousand performances in Germany, five thousand in America and one thousand each in London, Berlin and Paris. On a single night in Buenos Aires it was performed in five different languages.

The score is loaded with songs that quickly became romantic favorites. They're not all waltzes, but that tempo is writ large on this operetta. Your great-grandparents fell in love waltzing to the strains of The Merry Widow. There's the achingly beautiful, sweetly flowing ballad, "Vilja". There's that delightful up-tempo comic romp about "going to Maxim's" (where one can squander one's centimes and play with the pretty grisettes).

As is usual in America Winter Opera performs The Merry Widow in English.

The story is set in and around the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris. In the past Count Danilo was in love with Hanna, but his family objected to his marrying a commoner. So Hanna married age and wealth. Her old husband very obligingly died, leaving her a beautiful, young, fabulously wealthy, and very available widow. Gold-hungry suitors crowd around her like papparazzi. But Pontevedria is on the verge of bankruptcy and their ambassador, Baron Zeta, is frantic to keep Hanna's millions within "the fatherland". She must not marry a foreigner! He urges Danilo to marry her. But Danilo is bankrupt and his pride will not let him profess love to a wealthy woman. He loftily claims that his philosophy is to "love often, propose seldom, and marry never!" That's the plot: how can these two lovers be reunited?

The cast is splendidly strong. Kathy Pyeatt plays Hannah and sings with a very lovely strong soprano; she's capable of dramatic surges of power on her very highest notes. On her entrance she charmingly savors the adoration of twelve men. And can she wear those gorgeous gowns!

Clark Sturdevant is quite perfectly cast as Count Danilo. Over the years I've happily watched his growth from a brilliant young singer into a very fine mature lyric tenor-with impressive acting and comic abilities. He can be very dashing indeed-with a neat moustache and an attractively recalcitrant lock of hair that adds to his air of the carefree boulevardier.

Holly Janz nearly steals the show a time or two in the role of Valencienne, the ambassador's wife, who is relishing a flirtation with the Count de Rossillon. She has strikingly stage-worthy eyes, a ravishing smile, a splendid voice and expansively dramatic gestures. Her diction is impeccable; I understood her every word.

Jack Swanson is the Count de Rossillon-in love with the ambassadors wife. He brings to the role a beautiful voice with purity of tone throughout his range. His visible youth is the perfect vehicle for his infatuation with this charming lady d'une age certain.

Gary Moss sings the role of Ambassador Zeta and he captures every comic nuance. A terrific job. He's another with perfect diction.

Njegus is the embassy secretary, but here he becomes a general factotem-the "clever servant" personified. It is usually a non-singing role but Kurtis Shoemake finds himself singing and dancing throughout the evening. Njegus, a Montenegran, here appears in Turkish garb and the lively Shoemake makes him a delight. His comic sense is perfect.

Michael Oelkers, Ryan Keller, Leann Schuering, Zachary Devin, Joel Rogier, Emily Moses, Jacob Lassetter and Victoria Menke sing the supporting roles, and contribute to the overall excellence and sense of merry romance that permeate the evening.

There are moments of choral glory, rich and surging. The boistrous male ensemble number about "Girls, girls, girls" is a musical and comic delight. In reprises it accelerates into a wonder of synchrony-ending with a raucous chorus of flourishing tambourines. Great praise to chorus master Nancy Mayo.

Stage director Dean Anthony has managed this large cast wonderfully-always gracefully and with a keen sense for the comic. He also did the choreography. There's waltzing, of course and a beautifully executed peasant dance. There's a riotous, show-stopping men's song-and dance with tambourines, and there's that gayest of all dances, the exuberant, high-kicking can-can.

Scott Schoonover presides over an extraordinarily fine orchestra. A reprise of "Vilja," features beautiful work by oboist Carrie Smith and harpist Megan Stout. It's flowing and liquid and perfect for this meltingly romantic melody.

A time or two at the start of a number I noticed a slight asynchrony between a principal and the orchestra. (Could this perhaps be due to the follow-spots? They can be dazzling to an actor; Might they interfere with a singer's seeing the conductor.)

As usual with Winter Opera the technical aspects of the production are superb. Designer Scott Loebl gives us (1) a vastly beautiful ornate embassy hall, warm in rosy gold; (2) a breathtakingly lovely moonlit formal garden; and (3) the embassy transfigured into a simulacrum of Maxim's, the elegant club.

Costumer JC Krajicek fills the stage with sumptuous costumes-from the gowned and tail-coated elegance of the embassy to the vibrantly colorful and richly authentic peasant garb at Hanna's garden-party. A simply amazing job! My one quibble was with the dearth of petticoats on the can-can grisettes; this dance should be afroth with petticoats!

Sean Savoie's lighting plot is warm and complex with much careful use of follow-spots, which add so to the romance and the drama.

Winter Opera presented Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow for two performances only on October 28 and 30.