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On April 29, Boston Lyric Opera premiered their production of Franz Lehár’s 1905 opera “The Merry Widow,” which ran through May 8. BLO’s adaptation changes the setting from the Belle Epoque to the days leading up to WWI. This device, combined with a strong cast and brilliant set design and lighting, resulted in a spirited, sharp-witted opera that was a pleasure to watch.
Set against the looming specter of the war, the story of “The Merry Widow” begins when the recently widowed Hanna Glawari returns to the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris, her husband’s countrymen determined that they should inherit her fortune of 20 million dollars. While there is no dearth of suitors, it is quickly apparent that Hanna and the womanizing Count Danilo have a complicated history. Amid the romantic intrigues of court—“There’s nothing like a whiff of adultery to brighten things up,” says Baron Zeta—Hanna and Danilo channel Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, attacking one another sometimes with their words, but more often with their dances: a lively mazurka, a seductive waltz, even a traditional Balkan jig. The territorial wars of the ballroom floor are mirrored by the political turmoil of the outer world.
That the opera succeeded in portraying war in terms of ballroom dances was a testament to the champagne-clouded judgment of the upper classes, who see their own personal dramas as more important than the brewing political storm. A telegram informing Baron Zeta that Franz Ferdinand has arrived in Sarajevo was quickly torn up, with an angry shout of “I have important matters of state to attend to!” For the moment, it was true: The world of forbidden fruits and lavish balls was infinitely more interesting than the dull politics of the outer world, but as Hanna and Danilo’s relationship progressed, the war loomed ever closer, and the almost ditzy bravado of the opening chorale was replaced by somber arias and seductively sinister can-can numbers.
Despite its serious setting, this opera never succumbs to doom-and-gloom or melodrama. Quick, witty comedy was plentiful, as were jabs about Hanna’s Americanness. In one particularly funnyd number, the men sang about how women mercilessly wage war on their hearts. Upon realizing that the women had been watching this entire time, the men scattered like mice—their desperation a perfect distraction from the drama to come.
The set design was another brilliant work of art, creating a stage that almost upstaged the performers. John Conklin’s stage design—Art Deco extravagance arrayed in jewel tones and deep azures—was beautifully melancholic, imbuing every ball scene with nostalgia. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design furthered the drama, often serving as an emotional complement to the acting. The work of these artists came together for a design climax at Maxim’s nightclub, where golden lighting shifted to one of deep amber, highlighting the sweeping curves of the Belle Epoque nudes. As the mood turned sultry, the color changed to a dangerous love-potion pink. While the scene at Maxim’s is home to one of the opera’s most iconic dance numbers, the lighting and set stole the stage. But in the final scene of the opera, when the lavishness was laid bare by the beginning of the war, the set was sparse, grey, almost naked. Soldiers hummed the opera’s “Widow Waltz” without accompaniment, making for a moment of stark contrast between the lavish opening number and the inevitable tragedy of the future.
Of course, there were also moments of weakness in “The Merry Widow”—most prominent of which was Roger Honeywell’s (Count Danilo) voice, which sounded strained and brittle in contrast to Erin Wall’s (Hanna Glawari) supple soprano. Additionally, some comedic moments, like a phallic drawing on one of the maps, felt ill-timed or overdone, causing the opera to briefly lose its balance between seductive and vulgar. However, these missteps were rare, and the show emerged largely unscathed. The strength of the ensemble, combined with well-executed music and a truly unique set design, created an opera that was a truly fruitful reimagination of the original.
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