The Merry Widow
Kelli O'Hara and director Susan Stroman make their Metropolitan Opera debuts with Franz Lehár's classic operetta.
The stage of the Metropolitan Opera brims with talent from the worlds of opera and Broadway. Perennial Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara (The King and I) is making her Met debut under the direction of Tony -winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman (Bullets Over Broadway) in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. Complementing this pair of fresh faces are seasoned veterans Nathan Gunn and Renée Fleming (who is set to make her Broadway debut this spring in Living on Love), arguably the two greatest American opera stars. The onstage talent is supported by a design team of old pros (sets by Julian Crouch, costumes by William Ivey Long). One would expect that such an epic cross-medium collaboration would bring something unprecedented and extraordinary to the world's largest opera house — and at times, it does. Unfortunately, those times are few and far between in this disappointing effort. But audiences will want to be sure to stay until the end: This is one of those rare instances where a show springs back to life in its final act.
First performed in 1905, The Merry Widow is the improbably zany tale of Hanna Glawari (Fleming), a poor farmer's daughter from the impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro who married a rich old banker, only to have him kick the bucket on their honeymoon. Suddenly, she's the heir of 20 million francs and the object of desire for every gold-digging Frenchman in Paris. Baron Zeta (Sir Thomas Allen) of the Pontevedrian embassy is hell-bent on keeping that money in the fatherland. (How can he hope to maintain his glamorous state-funded lifestyle in Paris without tax revenues from the Glawari estate?) He presses his countryman Count Danilo Danilovitch (Gunn) to marry her. But Hanna and Danilo have a history. Plus, he's not sure if he can ever abandon his hard-partying bachelor ways.
Meanwhile, Zeta's wife, Valencienne (O'Hara), engages in a running flirtation with Camille de Rosillon (Alek Shrader), a handsome French attaché. He tries to woo her, writing on her fan, "I love you." Valencienne rebuffs him (kind of). Then Zeta discovers the fan and embarks on a three-act wild goose chase to discover the true identity of its owner. Certainly, he never suspects it could be his own "respectable wife."
Allen is hilarious as the cuckolded Baron. Rather than winking at the audience, he makes his blissful ignorance seem believable. Carson Elrod makes a memorable Met debut as Njegus, the clownish embassy secretary. With their very notable exception, the first two acts plod along in a mostly ho-hum manner. Jeremy Sams (who translated and directed last season's excellent Die Fledermaus offers a tepid English libretto that steadfastly casts The Merry Widow as a relic from the turn of the last century. One look around the rapidly exploding Manhattan skyline might lead one to suspect that there is plenty of timely comedic gold to be mined from a story about the elite of a poor eastern country living the high life in a cultural capital of the decadent West. Sams leaves that potential untapped, resulting in sporadic lukewarm laughter.
It also doesn't help that the balance is completely off. Under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra overpowers the singers through much of the first act. Only Gunn is consistently audible. This being operetta, there are also extended book scenes without any musical underscoring. Fleming's voice has a distractingly tinny quality during these passages, making it painfully obvious that she's wearing a mic.
Fleming rallies in the second act with the "Vilja song," a sweet and moving aria on which she seems to float away, so light and buoyant are her high notes. Costumed by Long (who has crafted unique and detailed fantasy-folk outfits for each of the Pontevedrians), Fleming glitters like the interior of a baroque palace, standing out from a stage already lavished in visual splendor.
The show finally falls into place in the third act, which is set at legendary Parisian restaurant Chez Maxim. Julian Crouch's art nouveau set migrates in behind a gaggle of high-kicking can-can dancers in one of the most thrilling scene transitions ever to grace the Met stage. Dancers backflip on, with some even flying in from the rafters. This athleticism is classic Stroman. Lehár has written some truly spectacular dance music here and one suspects this was the real draw for the choreographer/director. The whole act is endowed with a sudden vivacity that was hitherto absent.
This is also the place where O'Hara really shines. Playing the increasingly drunk baroness, she dances along with the chorus line, delivering pratfalls that would put Lucille Ball to shame. She bursts forth with a high note that rings out over the house before executing a cartwheel. The male dancers toss her around like a rag doll until she lands with a perfect dismount. Kelli O'Hara: singer, dancer, comedian, and up-and-coming opera star.
If you can stick it out for the first two hours, you'll leave The Merry Widow completely enchanted. Still, it's a long slog to get there.