Theater Reviews

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L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through May 26


If it is any kind of recommendation, Franz Lehar's most successful operetta was Hitler's favorite, regardless of the fact that its librettists, Victor Leon and Leo Stein; its star, Louis Treumann; and Lehar's wife, Sophie, were Jewish. Despite those bona fides, "The Merry Widow" (Die Lustige Witwe) remains the greatest of European operettas.

From its glorious black and white opening tableau -- an Art Nouveau greeting card of stylish design and magnificent costumes -- through its memorably lush music, velvety conducting by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, to its glorious spirit of the dance and its series of color-saturated layers with whipped cream and a cherry on the top, the operetta is a scrumptious wedding cake of a piece, to dive into with all senses tingling.

One doesn't suppose for a moment that it has a real bone in its structure, nor is it considered in mummified circles to be seriously classified as opera, but reality and tradition be damned: It's a whole lot of fun. Making this turn-of-the-(20th)-century a winning ticket is L.A. Opera's decision to keep it firmly in its era, without compromising the standards of classical operetta by turning it into TV sitcom to feed the multitudes, but satisfy none.

The merry widow, Anna Glawari, is played by the radiant mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, worth millions in any currency if only that radiance could be bottled and sold. Anna married a man who had the good sense to die and leave her a fortune, so now she is welcomed in any of the penniless Balkan states, be they real or operatic. Naturally, being ravishing and rich, she can name her price. What she wants is true love, the kind one can waltz to. All the wannabes in Pontevedria (possibly a stand-in for Montenegro) are desirous of courting the lovely lady, but Anna has her sights set on Count Danilo (a very American Balkan Count in Rod Gilfry), the tenor in question, with whom she has meandered through the meadows in the past when no one was watching. Baron Mirko Zeta (a nicely fustian Jake Gardner) is anxious to secure Anna's millions within Pontevedria; they would mean a lot to the local exchequer.

Following are lots of lively scenes where men blame women for all their troubles (what else is new?), at the same time as they're doing their damnedest to get them between the sheets. Camille de Rosillon (a smooth Eric Cutler with a nice tenor approach) is romancing Valencienne (Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz), wife of the Baron, who knows his wife would never! Schulz, whose big number opens the piece, is a tiny woman with, unfortunately, a tiny voice -- but maybe that was just an opening-night mike problem. The devilish Njegus, the Baron's chief "engineer," played to a fare-thee-well by the devilish Jason Graae, is at the heart of the machinations and the snafus that drive the eHarmony wagon in the right direction. Multiple plots unfold with misplaced fans, misunderstood messages, and several horns placed on several bull-headed males, and everything of course comes up roses. It's an operetta, what did you expect?

The music is key here, as is the dance. Some of the songs -- "Vilja," and the famous "Merry Widow Waltz" -- are so familiar as to be cliche, but elegantly and nostalgically cliche, and just risque enough by period standards to be beyond reproach. At Maxim's in the final act, Michael Yeargan's design, with magnificent costumes by Thierry Bosquet and lighting by Mary Louise Geiger, all in wicked shades of red, is perfect for the intended lasciviousness of the wicked life "in the mode of Paris," a situation devoutly to be wished in less open, impoverished Balkan society. Maybe there is a political context here after all.

If there is a minor cavil here, it is satiety. Running at more than three hours, this is a long operetta, and despite the quality of the specialty dancing at the Maxim's orgy -- Jonathan Sharp and Lisa Gillespie's lovely ballet, and the delightful skirts-over-the-head can-can -- a bit too much of a good thing can become a bit too much of a good thing.

Nevertheless, this "Widow" provides delicious icing on the cake of L.A. Opera's '06-'07 season.

THE MERRY WIDOW
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer: Franz Lehar
Book-lyrics: Victor Leon, Leo Stein
English version: Christopher Hasall
Additional material: Lotfi Mansouri
Conductor: Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Director: Lotfi Mansouri
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Thierry Bosquet
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
L.A. Opera concertmaster: Stuart Canin
L.A. Opera chorus master: William Vendice
Cast:
Baron Mirko Zeta: Jake Gardner
Valencienne: Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Count Danilo: Rod Gilfry
Anna Glawari: Susan Graham
Camille de Rosillon: Eric Cutler
Vicomte Cascada: Malcolm MacKenzie
Raoul de St. Brioche: Greg Fedderly
Bogdanowitsch: Jamie Offenbach
Sylviane: Rena Harms
Kromow: Jay Brian Winnick
Olga: Elizabeth Brackenbury
Pritschitsch: Brian Cali
Praskowia: Carol Swarbrick
Zozo: Tami Tappan Damiano
Njegus: Jason Graae
Maitre d'hotel: Mark Capri
Solo Dancers (Act 2): Yvette Tucker, Shell Bauman
Solo Dancers (Act 3): Lisa Gillespie, Jonathan Sharp
Lolo: Andrea Beasom
Dodo: Bradley Benjamin
Jou-Jou: Jean Michelle Sayeg
Frou-Frou: Yvette Tucker
Clo-Clo: Leslie Stevens
Margot: Alison Mixom
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