If operetta is the musical comedy of the opera world, then The Merry Widow is undoubtedly its biggest all-time smash hit. Premiered in 1905 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, Hungarian-born Franz Lehar’s irresistible romantic romp was promptly adapted for the London stage where it ran for a record-setting 778 performances. In less than a decade, the show had exploded into a global franchise, playing more or less simultaneously in Melbourne, Paris and New York. Film versions quickly followed including, rather improbably, two silent versions and, later, Ernst Lubitsch’s frequently rescreened 1934 Hollywood talkie starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald.
The work, one of Lehar’s earliest compositions for stage, made him an instant celebrity. Although virtually none of the thirty or so operettas he subsequently wrote was to achieve anything remotely resembling The Merry Widow’s enormous popularity, Franz Lehar remains, to this day, an abiding master of the catchy melody and a king of the hummable tune.
Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of arguably the world’s best-loved light opera classic this holiday season is both satisfying and affecting and does ample justice to the mighty Lehar legacy. Working with little more than a sparse St. Lawrence Centre stage and a mismatched assortment of mock fin de siècle brown furniture, director Guillermo Silva-Marin leads his likeable, high-spirited cast around the hairpin turns of love and misadventure fuelled with high octane farce. The destination, where Silva-Marin delivers us, is a place of innocence, charm and unexpected poignancy.
The story has been much tampered with since first penned by librettists Viktor Leon and Leo Stein. TOT has opted for the English version.
Baron Zeta, the Grand Duchy of Pondtevedro’s ambassador in Paris, has a cunning plan. His hapless little nation is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its sole hope of financial salvation lies in the vast fortune of its wealthiest citizen, the beautiful widow, Anna Galawari. Only marriage to a fellow Pontevedrian can guarantee that her millions will stay put in the fatherland. Count Danilo Danilovitsch, first secretary of the embassy, is the ideal spousal candidate, thinks Zeta. A way must be found to secure a wedding. Alas, the past has forced her and her former suitor, Danilo, apart and neither is keen to rekindle their romance.
Meanwhile, Baron Zeta’s long-suffering wife, Valencienne, has half-succumbed to the flattering attention of a handsome Parisian, the Vicomte Camille. Too preoccupied with nuptial matters of state to notice, Zeta commands Danilo to wed Anna. Danilo adamantly refuses. He will, however, see to it that all foreign rivals for Anna’s hand are kept away from her at the Pontevedrian Embassy ball. The icy atmosphere begins to thaw, albeit slowly, when Danilo and Anna find themselves sharing the last dance of the evening alone in each other’s company.
The celebrations continue in Anna’s Parisian townhouse garden where she entertains her guests with a Pontevedrian folksong. She and Danilo flirt. Pontevdrian males and locals alike are unanimous in their agreement that women are an inscrutable mystery. A mix-up surrounding a misplaced fan leads to even more complications when Baron Zeta thinks he spies Camille wooing his wife in a secluded pavilion. Or is it Anna? The widow Galawari has switched places at the last minute to preserve her fellow countrywoman’s reputation as a highly respectable wife.
The long night of partying concludes at Maxim’s. All the Pontevedrian wives have resolved to reveal their husbands’ potential philandering natures by disguising themselves as masked can-can dancers. The ruse is spectacularly successful. Anna confesses her role in the pavilion deception to Danilo and the two are united at last in a tender, romantic waltz. Baron Zeta is overjoyed. Pontevedro is saved. Anna’s millions will be shared by Danilo, her long lost true love and new husband-to-be.
In The Merry Widow’s title role, lyric soprano, Leslie Ann Bradley, is a model of poise and sophistication. Lehar demands a lot from his Anna. The tessitura tends to be relatively low for all singers in his cast but the Widow Galawari must also have at least one strong, solid top B in her vocal kitbag. Bradley has several. Her rendition of Act II’s spectacular “Vilja” is utterly triumphant in its high, soaring close. Heft and pitch are perfect, the voice lustrous and refined. This is an unmistakeably self-assured young talent, stylish and elegant.
As Count Danilo, tenor Adam Luther, a recent graduate of the Canadian Opera Company’s superb Ensemble Studio program, brings a fine sense of dramatic purpose to his numerous on stage appearances. His singing is equally scrupulous. “Love unspoken”, the celebrated Danilo/Anna duet sung to the irresistible strains of Lehar’s famous “Merry Widow Waltz”, is beyond tuneful in TOT’s touching production. Luther invests the moment with such emotion, such sensitivity, that only the coldest heart can fail to be melted.
Keith Klassen and Elizabeth Beeler, Valencienne and Camille, both imbue their essentially stock operettic characters, soubrette and ardent paramour, with eye-twinkling vitality, particularly in Miss Beeler’s case. With their attractively balanced voices, the two make a delightful pair.
Leading a scaled down pocket orchestra of thirteen excellent players, maestro Derek Bate, setting aside his more usual duties as Assistant Conductor with the COC, serves up Lehar’s sumptuous score with rich, lavish helpings of Viennese melody. Pure musical sachertorte.
If there is a somewhat less tasty element in Toronto Operetta Theatre’s current offering, it is the over abundance of political gags and topical one-liners levered into the dialogue. Repeated Rob Ford jokes, incessant references to America’s looming fiscal cliff, Mitt Romney, Viagra, F-35 fighter jets, all bits grow stale very quickly. A little more restraint would much better serve the comic interests of this otherwise brisk-paced and entertaining production.
Every age, it seems, finds comfort in Lehar’s iconic operetta. The Merry Widow was virtually the last of its kind. There is a vague, unspecified note of bittersweetness underlying the end of the piece, a loving farewell to a world that would never be again. TOT’s intimate, chamber presentation sounds the note with perhaps more clarity than usual but certainly no less understanding or affection for the work. This modest, unassuming production asks only to be enjoyed for what it is — a spirited love story, a beautiful fantasy set in a whirl of music and laughter and, yes, occasional tears. What more does operetta really need to be when all is said and sung?