A not so merry widow

By some measures The Merry Widow was the most popular piece of musical theater of the twentieth century. At its best it’s tuneful, sexy, funny, and touching. Unfortunately, this is rarely evident in Met’s disappointingly flat new production. And for a show directed by old Broadway pro Susan Stroman, it is bizarrely lacking in razzle dazzle.

Franz Lehár,
Die lustige Witwe/The Merry Widow. Metropolitan Opera, 1/6/14. New production directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with sets by Julian Crouch, costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Paul Constable. English version by Jeremy Sams. Conducted by Andrew Davis with Renée Fleming (Hanna Galwari), Nathan Gunn (Danilo), Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne), Alek Shrader (Camille), Sir Thomas Allen (Baron Zeta), Carson Elrod (Njegus).

As an operetta specialist, I was really looking forward to this production. It was a chance for a piece I’ve spent considerable time with to get a lot of attention and a big, expensive production with a big, expensive cast. Unfortunately I think that this production is going to do more harm to a modern revival of operetta than help. I will try not to be pedantic with my review; I think this production’s problems are simple and obvious enough to prevent that.

The Met seems to have deemed last year’s overstuffed, smug Fledermaus a mistake. Gelb even has even hinted such in print. The solution in this production has been to retain all of the elements of Fledermaus–most notably Jeremy Sams’s words, a lot of shiny ball scenes, and some random homophobia–only to dial their volume down to a level where the effect is thoroughly bland. The result is perhaps less grating but no more entertaining.

“Can I sing again yet?”

I think one problem is simply how Gelb and others are talking about operetta. Opera people often think of the spoken dialogue in Singspiels like Fidelio and Zauberflüote as a problem to solve, avoid, or minimize. Dialogue conveys important information, but it’s something to be dispensed of as quickly as possible in order to get to the part we actually like: the singing. But that doesn’t work with operetta. When these pieces were written the dialogue was an opportunity, not a liability. The performers were known as actors and personalities more than they were known as voices, and the plots, while sometimes hokey (you become inured to “devices” like letters, lockets, miniature portraits, and fans), were assessed for the cleverness with which they deployed their usual tricks. It’s rather like watching an episode of Law & Order.

Today, many seem to have concluded that while operetta’s music retains charm these plots and dialogue are dated and not fit for the acoustic of a large opera house like the Met. Gelb describes dialogue in the link above as “the less, the better.” But this is not easy to do because there’s no way to cut operetta dialogue down to nothing without completely mucking up the plot and characterization. I can understand the criticism: these librettos not great literature. Middlebrow culture doesn’t necessarily age well! We aren’t going to Sardou plays anymore either and I’d be surprised if people are watching Law & Order in 2100 (unless it’s still running, which is possible). But if your production plows through poorly directed and brutally cut operetta dialogue just in a rush to get to the next song the effect is leaden, off-balance, and irritating for everyone. You need the right performers to approach it with enthusiasm and wit. I have seen clever productions where things work and are charming or ironic or otherwise effective. This Widow is not one of them.

This pre-production preview photo seems to be
false advertising, aesthetically speaking

The Met, being the Met, has put Jeremy Sams on the case. As we know from previous Sams translations/adaptations/contrivances like The Enchanted Island and Fledermaus, this writer seems to be paid by the syllable, or possibly by the simile. He packs too many complex words into each line (even compared to the original, which is, remember, in German), slowing the tempos to a crawl.  He likes lines which have “sycophantic” and “romantic” as internal rhymes and also likes rhymes that are slanted at best. He has a penchant for alliteration which makes me morbidly curious as to what would happen if he were to be set loose on Götterdämmerung. He has little control over register, veering from modern colloquialisms to faux archaism to Sondheim lite at every opportunity.

Yep, that’s more like it.

He trades in misogyny, making a passage of the harmlessly confused “Wie die Weiber” septet describing a parade of ladies with different hair colors into a group of Sphinxes, children, and minxes (he also does something weird with the Vilja-Lied). He also plain mistranslates a lot. How did Danilo’s refrain of “So I can easily forget the dear Fatherland” become “Dearest Pontevedro, I do it all for you”? (By the way, I do agree that in the US this piece must be performed in English. There are, however, much better options than this translation.)

But in some ways the text isn’t the main problem, because, like in many operettas, much of the tension lies in the gulf between what is said and what is meant. Valencienne spends an entire song flirting with Camille as she sings a text about how she is a respectable wife. Here is where Stroman and the cast really have failed: there is virtually no innuendo or subtext. This production has, in the words of my friend, “less sexual tension than The Sound of Music.” The cast also, sadly, has zero comic timing. While this kind of acting does not often come easily to opera singers, one would hope that the director could have given them a hand here. The only spontaneous humor happened after a half-hour interruption mid-Act 3 due to technical problems: when the curtains opened to reveal the dancers hoisting up Valencienne (the tableau seen in the photo below), Kelli O’Hara proclaimed, “they’ve been holding me up for half an hour!”

Renée Fleming’s Widow Hanna is an unassuming type, closer to the Pontevedran farm girl than sophisticated Parisian lady. That’s a fine interpretative option, but what is missing is the part where she’s merry. She seems quite toned down and proper and over it, which isn’t much fun at all. Her top notes sound lovely, which makes me wonder why she chose a role which relies on her weaker middle register, but she was audible throughout. I have to take exception to her interpolation of “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” from Paganini into Act III, which is late Lehár and stylistically like sticking Desdemona’s Willow Song into the middle of Nabucco, but it did give her a chance to sing out. Living Gaston avatar Nathan Gunn seemed to me like a good choice for Danilo, but I was disappointed. He sounded blustery and lacking in the kind of gentlemanly smoothness and suavity this music demands, nor did he embrace Danilo’s vulnerable, melodramatic side.

Broadway import Kelli O’Hara as Valencienne, besides her priceless ad lib, seemed somewhat miscast. She sounded perfectly sweet, but her appeal is a sort of down-home approachability (seen in musicals like South Pacific, Carousel, and Light in the Piazza, where her characters tend to the fresh and all-American), not the soubrette flirt she was playing. I actually think she would be a better choice for Hanna, where her charm would be a good fit. As her persistent suitor Camille, Alek Shrader sounded very uncomfortable with his role’s high tessitura, and I feared for the top notes. (I highly recommend the Opernhaus Zürich’s production of this piece on DVD, where you can see a young Piotr Beczala as an excellent Camille).

The production’s greatest asset was Thomas Allen (not pictured anywhere, apparently) as Baron Zeta. Allen (Sir Thomas, I think) classes up every production in which he appears. His character’s self-delusion regarding his wife’s intentions somehow became the fulcrum of the plot because it was the strongest thing on display. It is a shame he didn’t have more to sing because he still sounds excellent. On the other hand, Carson Elrod played Njegus as a fey homophobic stereotype simultaneously obsessed with the Grisettes, which was very unfortunate. (Remember the Sams version of Orlovsky in Fledermaus? Apparently this is mandatory.)

Andrew Davis’s conducting is fine but tended towards the slow, maybe for textual intelligibility. Stroman provides a relatively rousing kolo in Act II and a cancan for the Grisettes in Act III (which is relocated from Hanna’s house to a respectable sort of Maxim’s*). But her choreographic talents are otherwise underused. Visually, the production is fairly generically glossy. Sams removes the toast to the Pontevedran Fürst in the opening, and in general we don’t get much of a sense of place or time. (I think there’s a lot of potential to do funny stuff with Pontevedro’s lack of money and great enthusiasm for folk customs and displays of patriotism–great Austro-Hungarian satire there, by the way–but they don’t go there.) The effect of Crouch’s flat drops is storybook and simple, which seems problematic for a piece which is trying hard to be sophisticated and adult.

Or maybe this one isn’t going for that, which might be part of the problem. In 1905, a lot of Die lustige Witwe’s success could be attributed to its novel blend of the cosmopolitan, the exotic, and the sentimental. Unfortunately this production doesn’t strike so many different dramatic notes; indeed, it doesn’t find many at all. A big operetta revival seems tantalizingly imminent, but there are still many challenges to getting this material onstage.

The Merry Widow runs through January and the HD broadcast is on January 17.



*Pendantic footnote: Librettist Victor Léon said that he didn’t think 1905 Viennese operetta audiences were ready to see a scandalous establishment like Maxim’s on the stage of the respectable Theater an der Wien. Yet audiences who themselves would not step foot into such a club nor even see its replica in a bourgeois theater could nonetheless thrill to the sight of the Grisettes when the dancers were brought out of their customary habitat. This prohibition seems to have reflected local conservatism; directors of very early productions in Paris and London set Act III in Maxim’s itself.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met except preview photo, which is copyright Brigitte Lacombe.

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  1. I would love to see that! I have don't have much experience with Hahn, actually (neither did the Viennese–he never made a big impression with them–hence my lack of knowledge). It looks fun, like an updated La vie parisienne?

  2. Could you recommend any good productions of the Merry Widow? I've only seen clips for the Karita Mattila producton from paris (they should have staged the opera for her a decade ago) and the San Francisco production with Angelika Kirschlager. Both productions are musically excellent but totally forgettable, though nothing as bad as this new one.

  3. You'd like to see what he'd do with Gotterdaemmerung? You can! Because he was the translator for Phyllida Lloyd's ENO Ring of about a decade ago. I saw The Valkyrie and disliked the translation a lot. I believe I purchased a printed copy so I could quote it correctly in my review.

    The review is here, fourth performance down. I think I'd appreciate the production more today, and maybe I'm nitpicking about the translation, but….