BWW Review: THE MERRY WIDOW Romances Milwaukee at The Florentine Opera Company
As a sometimes-self-identifying Millennial, it may come as little surprise that opera is relatively new territory for me. I've grown up as a lover of musical theater, but classic opera is a whole other ball o' wax. Mainstream media doesn't exactly drop Verdi, Mozart, Lehár, or even Gilbert & Sullivan into one's lap. I've had to seek out the experience of opera, going into it knowing that there's a risk involved. A risk of disappointment and of the experience affirming what current trends seem to have decided for me: that opera's rightful place is in the past.
But thanks to Milwaukee's splendid operatic offerings, I can now trumpet what I've experienced firsthand: that opera doesn't have to be a dated, stuffy, or dying artform. If done well, classically-performed opera can move, excite, and delight today's audiences - and that's exactly what's happening with the Florentine Opera Company's production of Lehár's The Merry Widow.
Founded in 1933, the Florentine Opera Company is Wisconsin's oldest professional performing arts organization and the sixth-oldest opera company in the U.S. Every year, the company stages three grand productions at the Marcus Center in downtown Milwaukee, while also performing more intimate engagements in nearby Riverwest. The Merry Widow indeed falls on the grand end of the scale, with stunning Art Nouveau set design, lavish costumes, heavenly voices, and a thoughtful collaboration with the Milwaukee Ballet for both dancing and orchestral accompaniment.
I'm personally wired to be partial to any narrative that takes place in Paris, and The Merry Widow does one better: it's set in the Golden Age of Maxim's with that idyllic "vie Parisienne." Turn-of-the-century Paris is, in our collective nostalgia, a time of easy romance, the ruffled whirl of Can-Can skirts, and coquettish women in feathered hats & harem pants. What makes the Florentine's Merry Widow so successful, before the singers even open their mouths, is the way in which this French essence springs to life on stage. In each of the opera's three acts, eye-popping scenic and costume confections keep the audience riveted.
And then those aforementioned singers do open their mouths, and the sounds sweep you away all the more to another time and place - a time where the titular merry widow, Hanna, played by the radiant Alyson Cambridge, has inherited 20 million from her deceased husband and is now the most sought-after woman in all of Paris. The story is one of love and folly - one of those rather silly, surface-level comedies of will-they-won't-they end up happily ever after. The music matches the story, with gorgeous arias, stirring duets, and jolly ensemble pieces to draw plenty of laughs. Cambridge embodies the effervescent widow, her eyes dancing as she delivers breathtaking notes of music with palpable magnetism.
But I didn't necessarily find myself lost in the particular woes and wishes of the characters themselves. Rather, I found the trick lies in allowing yourself to be caught up in the overall romance of the experience. It's said that the Bel-canto style of singing - what the average ear thinks of as that classic, soaring, operatic tone - is all about the sensuous beauty of the human voice, and not "truth of expression." That is to say: annunciation.
There's a reason why even an opera performed in English, such as The Merry Widow, also has supertitles flashing on a screen above the stage. I admit, at first I found it rather distracting. They're singing in English - shouldn't I be able to understand it? I kept glancing at the supertitles and missing the nuance on stage, unsure as to what was more important - the content of the lyrics or the actors' delivery.
I eventually landed on delivery as a way to embrace the bel-canto singing model and appreciate the sounds in all their beauty, rather than in their ability to perfectly narrate the story. Dance interludes performed by members of the Milwaukee Ballet also served to pace the singing, adding another layer of enjoyment to the evening. I left The Merry Widow feeling light and, well, merry - a testament to the Florentine Opera's mission: "If our song has stopped one heart from aching we have not lived in vain."
Photo Credit: Kathy Wittman