Franz Lehár’s beloved, wildly successful operetta “The Merry Widow” will woo and then suspend in delicious wistfulness even the staunchest objector to its inclusion in the repertoire of a major opera company. With its melancholy yet hopeful waltz, ample opportunities for mazurkas, can-cans and polkas as well as a generous role for a cherished leading lady of a soprano-bent, “The Merry Widow” will, by the third act, require that handkerchiefs be located.
Lyric’s production, under the guidance of fabled director/choreographer Susan Stroman, is all that and more. An international superstar and a diva that Chicago claims as one of its personal, prized possessions, Renée Fleming stars as the wealthy, widowed beauty determined by hook and by charm to claim her true love, the man who got away during a youthful misunderstanding. Stroman’s greatest contribution is the dancing, all of it freshly examined and delightfully executed. The designers have outdone themselves; the costumes, lighting and sets are all individually breathtaking.
In the soubrette role, soprano Heidi Stober warbles prettily while her tenor counterpart, Michael Spyres, leaps gracefully up to Lehár’s death-defying high Cs. It was warming to see some of Chicago’s favorite actors in the buffo roles. Jonathan Weir, Michael Weber and Jeff Dumas provided pitch-perfect gayety as the riotously befuddled Njegus.
The role of the leading man was written for an actor who sings reasonably well, his voice somewhere between a low-ish tenor and a high-flying baritone, with the right look and personality thrown in for good measure. As with any part written for a particular voice, another performer will find individual challenges. To point: Thomas Hampson speaks most of his notes with mixed results on those held.
In the end, the evening belonged to Fleming. The role of The Widow is often filled by a soprano wending her way toward retirement. Yet, the high B at the end of “The Vilja Song” assured us that Fleming needn’t pack up her dressing room anytime soon. (Aaron Hunt)
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, (312)827-5600, lyricopera.org, $20-$329. Through December 13.