Oh, ho, ho. It appears that a holiday-season association is developing between Christmas, the time of wretched excess, and the comic operetta warhorse “The Merry Widow.”
I hope I’m wrong. I trust this trend will fizzle. I don’t need another reason to despise our national festival of heedless, reckless consumption, maddeningly cheerful Christmas elevator music, gluttony, drunkenness, depression, fake bonhomie and 10,000 repetitions in five weeks of the six mortal minutes of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
So it was with trepidation that I made my way to the Cahn Auditorium in Evanston to hear Franz Lehár’s tribute to the ideals, the spirit of the Parisian flâneur. That spirit is a clumsy sniggering schoolboy furtiveness about sex, a panicky fear of the female body, a shocking selfishness, a disgusting avarice, and limitless male vanity and obliviousness. These qualities should have by now sunk “The Merry Widow” forever.
The Cahn is the perfect size for “The Merry Widow.” When the New York City Opera staged “Widow” in 1996, the acting of the singers never rose above broad, noisy, vulgar caricature. Why? Because these stages are too large for operetta (“little opera”). The cavernous setting demands violent gesticulation, not gestures. Changes of expression never make it over the footlights. Subtle changes in stance or posture escape notice.
At the more intimate Cahn, I hoped the smaller house might promote real dramatic acting by the “Widow” cast: aristocratic self-control, calm superiority, ease, grace. We would see languid, upper-class indifference to middle-class morals in the movements and attitudes of the Light Opera Works singers. Instead we were given the usual caricatures, not individual characters. To say this production lacks the debonair, the reserve, the magnanimous, the sophisticated is simply to say that it is acted and sung by people who have been told over and over again that they’re not being broadly humorous enough, not funny. The house would never “get” their adherence to aristocratic type.
The lack of trust in the music, the libretto and the dramatic situation to do the work of comedy is chargeable not so much to the Light Opera Works director, Rudy Hogenmiller, as it is to a baneful tradition that ensures every director of the ”Widow” falls into the same mistakes made for the last 100 years. Directors ask for the frantic Punch-and-Judy gestures, the running hither and thither, the slamming doors and angry shouts appropriate to French farce. But the main failure here is, of course, ascribable to Lehár and his librettists, who failed to learn how Mozart and his librettists combined the serious and the comedic, light and dark, polish and profundity.
I have no quarrel with the Light Opera Works version of “The Merry Widow.” It is professional, competently cast, thoroughly rehearsed. The chorus sings well, and dances while singing without the intense stare, fixed on the conductor, that betrays the under-rehearsed amateur. I wish the strings in the thirty-piece orchestra produced a richer, more confident, more assertive tone. Why do the strings in suburban music theaters always sound thin and anemic compared to the brass, woodwind and percussion in the same orchestra? And why the persistent problems with intonation?
Count Danilo Danilovitch is pleasingly sung by Larry Adams—I wish Mr. Adams were just ten years younger. I wish he didn’t look so ineffably healthy and healthy-minded. Where is the elegant dissipation, the pang of disappointed love, the distraction and despair that should be etched on his elegant features from start to finish?
As Baron Zeta, Alex Honzen suffers by being cast against type. He has the requisite bald head and stoutness, but lacks the touch of coarseness that Baron Zeta simply must have. His acting, ironically, is closer to the aristocratic ideal than any of the other principals.
Stacey Tappan has the looks, the voice and the stage presence to be a first-rate Hanna Glawari. Tappan’s dark, rich, big dramatic soprano voice proves nearly too much for this lovely delicate aria. Hogenmiller would have been well served to give her the following direction: “Don’t interpret this aria at all. Just sing it artlessly, softly, wistfully, and let the music do the work. Omit the forte theatrical emphasis on the top-most notes in the melody. Sing those notes no louder than mezzo piano.” It’s only fair to say that Tappan is hampered by the agonizingly slow tempo for “Vilja” taken by conductor Nyela Basney. From the audience I felt a sympathetic pain in my diaphragm as I realized what heroic breath control it was going to take to get through that song. It’s hard enough to sing at a faster tempo.
The acting star of the evening is Brian Rooney. Rooney’s Njegus took me by surprise in his big number in the last act. It was as close as any of the principals came to capturing an actual character, and he held my attention from first to last by his subtlety, energy and wit.
One final point: the dramatic situation, the thesis of “The Merry Widow,” is that thwarted love has created a young nobleman who, bewildered and defeated by lauf, lawf, LOVE! has become a hardened, carnal boulevardier, but one who, under his cynicism and hurt, remains an idealistic believer in all-powerful, all-healing LAWF. Why this silly, sentimental premise is impossible in movies, ridiculous in a third-rate television crime drama, and a huge drawing card in the world of suburban operetta is a conundrum I don’t have the time to unravel.
Part of the answer is that Lehár happened to write five or six whistleable tunes for his pastiche of Strauss, Jr., Offenbach and the masters of French light opera. Briefly, “The Merry Widow” lacks a recognizable style. What a chasm between it and Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”! The latter has a unity of style that controls and informs every element of the music—melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration—and libretto.
There is in Johan Strauss, Jr. an enveloping charm, a complete world that persuades, pleases and ultimately enthralls the listener with every note, every phrase, every modulation. Lehár wrote can-can music without a kick in ”The Merry Widow.” He failed to write evocative music for the scenes in which passion-love takes center stage. His comic songs can’t be mentioned in the same breath with Arthur Sullivan’s delicious creations.
I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. Every attitude, every convention, every situation, every turn of plot and most of the wit in “The Merry Widow” was forty-five years old at birth. Everything in the book, libretto and lyrics was borrowed or stolen from the French melodrama of the 1860s—from Halevy, Sardou and Meilhac.
Will we ever have a ”Merry Widow” that drops the frenzy of farce, the knockabout action of Harlequin, Pantaloon and Pierrot in favor of real, grown-up aristocrats behaving badly and hypocritically in believable, adult ways? I’m not hopeful. (Bill Sweetland)
Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston, (847)920-5360, lightoperaworks.org. $34-$94. Through December 31.