The Merry Widow

By Franz Lehár 

Libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein based on Henri Meilhac’s L’attaché d’ambassade

Directed by Michael Cavanaugh

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Emily Pulley and Christopher Feigum
 in The Merry Widow.
Photo by Erica Cody Rucker.

In the explorations afforded me in my role as a reviewer, it has been fascinating to discover in the history of performance arts the antecedents of more contemporary forms contained in works created generations ago. This thought seems to have been very much on the mind of director Michael Cavanaugh, who in The Merry Widow has updated the dialogue in this light opera to make overt reference to current events. These efforts are sometimes anachronistic but just as often underscore just how modern this particular material can be made to seem to a new audience.
The music itself has several instances where the structure and tone of certain songs bear a distinct relationship to Broadway musical theatre forms that would emerge some 40 years later. “Marsch-Septett,” in which the male cast members sing hilariously of the virtues of the fairer sex, would not be out of place in a Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe show, while the romantic complications of the story prefigure plot archetypes that are still being employed today, and not just in musical theatre.
All of which serves to frame this particular reviewer’s take on this production, for I am by no means an expert on opera. In fact, as a form, it has always been elusive to me. I can respect the precision and craft behind the composition, and recognize the measure of talent and commitment required to bring a full production to fruition, but I have yet to be caught up in the passion that true opera afficianados feel when the overture begins.
This production, which engages the audience so easily with the sweep of the waltz rythyms and the broad comedy of the dialogue scenes, seems designed to reach out to new, uninitiated audience members like me and seduce them to the form. In that purpose it largely succeeds, for I know that I will be back next season. For the more discerning ear, it might still be engaging, but perhaps there would be small reservations. Do the references to the collapse of the Greek economy devastating the European system as a whole or the shameless plugs for ubiquitous local arts funder Brown-Forman seem like a needless updating of a classic, late 19th century masterpiece? 
Good questions, but for others to decide. For me, a populist approach to the material makes practical sense in challenging economic times, and as a neophyte opera fan, I found the whole thing far more entertaining than I had anticipated.  The principal cast was long on charm and strong of voice, led by a delightful turn from Emily Pulley as Hanna Glawari, the wealthy widow from Pontevedria whose sizeable fortune is the focus of the plot machinations.  She was well-matched by Christopher Felgium as Danilo, her former lover who seems determined not to fall for Hanna a second time. Each of their duets displayed good chemistry and soaring vocals, most notably late in the third act when they perform the famous selection commonly known as the “Merry Widow Waltz.”
The grizzettes of chez Maxim in The Merry Widow
Erica Cody Rucker.

Stephanos Tsirakoglou was imperious and full of comical bluster as Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian Ambassador in Paris; while Abigail Paschke was a very good Valencienne, his wife with a roving eye for Camille de Rosillon, played nimbly by Victor Ryan Robertson. The chorus filled out the action forcefully, thanks to good choreography from Herald Uwe Kern that kept the energy flowing and built to a bawdy and rambunctious climactic third act number, “Reminiazenz,” in which the girls of chez Maxim’s stylishly execute a classic can-can.
The orchestra, under the baton of Jason Raff, was comprised of an ad hoc group of local musicians pulled together in recent weeks after attempts by Kentucky Opera to negotiate a separate contract with the musician’s union.  Under the circumstances, with less rehearsal time than is customary, their playing was, for the most part, highly accomplished. Yet, even to this untrained ear, there were moments when their performance strained at the effort, with recognizably discordant results among the strings in particular.
The set design by Erhard Rom was sumptuous and grand enough to provide a visual match for the magnificent score by Franz Lehár, with a standout set piece being the colorful glass pavilion featured in the second act.  Combined with equally grand costumes, the visual look of the production sealed the deal on this highly engaging romantic comedy set to 3/4 time.
Editor’s Note: This last production of Kentucky Opera’s 2011-12 season was protested by musicians from the Louisville Orchestra, who were present in front of The Brown Theatre carrying signs and handing out leaflets to passers-by. The ongoing dispute between the union musicians and Louisville Orchestra management still has no end in sight, with the musicians recently rejecting an offer to resolve the impasse through binding arbitration, citing inaccuracies in the statement from management.

The Merry Widow

February 17, 2012 @ 8:00pm
February 19, 2012 @ 2:00pm

Kentucky Opera
at The Brown Theater
233 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40205