The Merry Widow

By Franz Lehár

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor, Emmanuel Villaume
Stage Director, Gary Griffin

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Jan. 9, 2010

If this production were the only one I'd ever seen at Lyric Opera, I'd have gone away thinking they need to implement a quality control program. In this performance of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, the orchestra eclipsed about half the singing, especially in the middle and lower vocal ranges; fortunately, those same voices were still incandescent higher in their tessituras. One wonders how such a deficiency could escape the attention of the conductor, the director, the assistant director, every member of the cast and crew, the general manager, and anyone casually walking through the auditorium during a rehearsal. There's no excuse for such sloppiness from a company of Lyric's renown or for such disrespect toward their audience, vis-ŕ-vis ticket prices, time commitment, and musical expectations.

A few people walked out after the first act, and I was nearly one of them. But the second and third acts of Widow contain the operetta's most lyrical music, not the least of which are "Vilja's Song" and "The Merry Widow Waltz". They nudge the singers higher into their ranges where the voices can glimmer, particularly important in this production. As Hannah Glawari, our eponymous widow, Elizabeth Futral sang fluidly -- with delicacy, strength, and warmth. Her treatment of "Vilja's Song" was reminiscent of Joan Sutherland's graceful swelling and receding, especially in her final upward decrescendo into the elegant wistfulness that makes this song, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the operetta. But her attack was lighter than Sutherland's and her vibrato just a bit narrower and faster, albeit not as much as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's; on the whole, Futral's voice was quite to my taste. Furthermore, she brought out the long, gentle arc of this melody at a lilting tempo that fired my anticipation of every leap from "Vil" to "ja".

Roger Honeywell sang the role of Count Danilovich, the object of Hannah's affections. Although his tenor voice was fine in and of itself, it lacked the power to match Futral's in the duets. In fact, the only penetrating voice in the cast belonged to Stephen Costello, who sang de Rosillon; he delivered force and brightness throughout his range. Vocally, he would have been a more-interesting partner for Futral.

Although Honeywell's acting was smart, crisp, and funny, his relationship with Futral was such that their characters were more comical than witty. As a result, their effort to portray a couple in love generated more a feeling of farce, of juvenile infatuation, than it did romance. Nevertheless, their gentle rendition of the waltz was touching; like a cautious romance, it began slowly and hesitantly and it intensified steadily as the two former lovers remembered what they once had. The tentative gradually congealed into the confident.

Lyric tried to honor the period nature of Widow by being faithful to the physical and cultural ambience of upper-class Paris in the late 19th century, during the belle époque. Yes, the sets could have been more lavish, I suppose, but the sumptuousness and elegance of the era did come through. Although this was the time of the New Imperialism, phonographs, exotic feathers, social stratification, telephones, Art Nouveau, operettas, and the waltz, monarchies and empires were waning as political and social revolutions were fomenting all around. I don't know whether it was Griffin's intention, but this interpretation of the story had no sense of the imminent demise of the House of Hapsburg or of an entire social order and the way of life that went with it. Omitting a reference to this historical context isn't necessarily wrong, but had it been present, Lyric's production would have been richer and more poignant, and the libretto's wit would have had a sharper edge. As it was, though, it came across as a simple story of love and forgiveness.