Met ‘Merry Widow’: Brassy Broadway Ruffles Old World

Broadway star Kelli O'Hara stands out in the Metropolitan Opera production of 'The Merry Widow.'  (Production photos by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
Broadway star Kelli O’Hara stands out in the new Metropolitan Opera production of Franz Léhar’s ‘The Merry Widow.’
(Production photos by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
By Judith Malafronte

NEW YORK — The New Year’s Eve audience for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Léhar’s The Merry Widow was primed for froth and fun, but compromises between Blockbuster Musical values and the gracious vocalism and perfumed, old-world charm of Viennese operetta marred the performance.

Danilo (Nathan Gunn) tries to rekindle the flame with Hanna (Renée Fleming).
Danilo (Gunn) tries to rekindle a flame with widow Hanna (Fleming).

White gloves and waltzes, ostrich plumes, and beribboned barons aren’t enough to put bottoms on seats, and when soprano Renée Fleming decided she wanted to wind down her career with pretty tunes and a gorgeous smile, Met general manager Peter Gelb found a director to play to the diva’s strengths. Since Fleming has never managed to transform herself physically into anyone other than a casual, contemporary dame, Broadway superstar director and choreographer Susan Stroman sprinkled razzle-dazzle over the work’s Belle Epoque style and used the nimble theater and TV actor Carson Elrod as a sort of audience intermediary in the role of a fey, wise-cracking embassy secretary who flits between French aristocrats and the natives of a fictional principality called Pontevedro.

The flimsy story, involving a rich Pontevedrian widow living in Paris whose money is needed back in the nearly bankrupt homeland, is stuffed with memorable tunes, and conductor Andrew Davis handled the excellent Met orchestra with appropriate delicacy. Jeremy Sams’ English version was less annoying than his recent Fledermaus and Enchanted Island translations, but dialogue was difficult to understand (even with amplification) on the gigantic Met stage, and Act One lumbered along. Rhyming “chantoozies” with “floozies” is typical of Sams’ style, but it was odd that the widow Hanna’s surname was pronounced “GLAH-vary” when spoken, but “Gla-VAH-ry” when sung.

It’s Stroman’s brilliant choreography that people will remember, though. The ensemble of operatic tenors and basses who drool after women and quiver in their presence (“Who can tell / What the hell / Women are?”) is just as fleet and funny as the Grisette number (“We’re the ladies of the chorus / And the gentlemen adore us” — at right) delivered by six seasoned Broadway hoofers. An adorable fake cancan, with female dancers sitting atop male legs, accompanies an impressive set change as the Paris nightspot Chez Maxim descends, along with three cancan girls — the whole transformation in full view.

Valencienne (Kelli O'Hara) is smitten with Rosillon (Alek Shrader).
Valencienne (Kelli O’Hara) is smitten with Rosillon (Alek Shrader).

William Ivey Long’s costumes are a colorful mix of folk outfits and glamorous gowns, but Julian Crouch’s sets are the stuff of provincial dinner theater (did funds run out?), with the first act’s French Embassy a boring box with cream-colored walls, red curtains, and gold chandeliers. Even a cute fireworks display doesn’t perk up the cheesy painted statues and dreary two-dimensional trees of Hanna’s Parisian garden.

In the title role, Fleming looked radiant in four gowns (doesn’t everyone change couture in the middle of a garden party?), but was inaudible much of the time and incomprehensible the rest. The role lies almost entirely in the soprano’s middle register, where Fleming’s voice has become weak, and she missed many opportunities to float high notes in the well-known “Vilja” aria. Fleming’s best moments were in an aria lifted from Léhar’s Paganini and in some of the interaction with baritone Nathan Gunn, who plays Hanna’s former lover Danilo with an amiably attractive presence and a sound that occasionally turned throaty.

Veteran British baritone Thomas Allen brought easy command of the spoken and sung text to an authoritative, energetic characterization of the Ambassador, Baron Zeta. In her Met debut as Zeta’s wayward wife Valencienne, Broadway star soprano Kelli O’Hara showed the opera singers a thing or two about sparkling diction and ebullient vocalism (the singing was not amplified), and her drunken dance number, joining the can-can girls in a hilariously awkward ensemble, brought down the house. Too bad there was little chemistry between OHara and tenor Alek Shrader, who sounded tiny and pinched as Rosillon.

Remaining performances with the current cast are Jan. 3, 6, 9, 13, 17 (matinee and live HD broadcast), 20, 23, 28, and 31; Paul Nadler conducts beginning Jan. 20. Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi will lead a new cast starring Susan Graham for performances on April 24, 27, 30, and May 7. Click here for details.

Lecturer in Music at Yale University, Judith Malafronte writes for Opera News, EMAg, and other print and online outlets, while continuing a career as mezzo-soprano, continuo player, and vocal coach in the New York City area.