Lyric Opera of Chicago’s love affair with the beautiful Renée Fleming shows no signs of cooling, and after the premiere of “The Merry Widow” Nov. 14, the whole arts community and beyond appeared to be wrapped in the embrace of this acclaimed American soprano.
A virtually sold-out crowd packed the Civic Opera House to see and hear her in “The Merry Widow,” Franz Lehar’s masterful romp through the tangle of class distinctions, marital (almost) infidelity, an (almost) bankrupt little Eastern European country, and the racy joys of living in Paris in 1905.
The main characters are Hanna Glawari, sung exquisitely by Fleming, and Count Danilo, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson, the aristocrat who had loved her when she was just a farmer’s daughter, but broke off their romance when his family objected. Now a wealthy widow, she visits the Paris Embassy of her homeland, the fictional Balkan state of Pontevedro, which teeters on the brink of insolvency. Officials hope that Hanna will marry a fellow countryman, such as Danilo, to keep her 20 million in the country’s treasury.
This is a love story, told in glorious music, between two adults who parted young. Fleming and Hampson, both tops in the pantheon of operatic actors, have great chemistry and their voices turn Lehar’s luscious songs into show-stoppers. They spar deftly, and she even throws down one of her gloves, which he accurately recognizes as a declaration of war. All the while, we in the audience long to push them back together.
There is, however, another flirty pair who match wits and provide us with many laughs: Frenchman Camille de Rosillon, sung by tenor Michael Spyres, and the spirited Valencienne, sung by Heidi Stober, an American soprano in her Lyric debut. This heroine is inconveniently married to Baron Zera, the Pontevedrian ambassador to France. Will she or won’t she? What happens when her husband finds out? And what about her fan, on which de Rosillon has written, boldly, “I love you,” which has gone missing?
The colorful show, mounted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 2014, is olympian in grandeur. It opens at the stunning staircase of the embassy in Paris, moves to the colorful garden of Hanna’s mansion, where she sings the haunting “Vilja,” and finally takes us to the sumptuous Chez Maxim. The legendary grisettes are as nimble as acrobats, turning cartwheels and kicking up their shapley legs. They were the hit of opening night.
Five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman makes her Lyric debut as director and choreographer of this vibrant production, and Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra in its magnificent score.
It is a triumph for the artists and for Lyric, a show for all ages.
Before the curtain went up on opening night, Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud came on stage and spoke to the audience. Because “The Merry Widow” is set in Paris in 1905, he expressed the desire to honor the Paris of today, which had just suffered a terrorist attack. He invited the audience to stand as the Lyric Orchestra played the “Marseillaise.” As the very last note sounded, someone in the audience shouted, “Vive la France.” It was, indeed, a moment to remember on a very memorable evening.
“The Merry Widow” is sung in English with English super-titles. Production runs two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission though Dec. 13 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Nicole Cabell replaces Fleming in the title role starting Dec. 9. For additional information, call 312-332-2244 or visit the Lyric website.
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