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Lehar's Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago, 18.12.2009 (JLZ)


Set Designer: Daniel Ostling
Stage Director: Gary Griffin
Costume Designer: Maria Blumenfeld

Lighting: Christine Schuler
Chorus Master: Donald Nally
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume


Viscount Cascada:Paul La Rosa

Baron Mirko Zeta:Dale Travis

Valencienne: Andriana Chuchman

Camille de Rosillon: Stephen Costello

Kromov: James Rank

Olga: Susan Nibuz Forst

Sylviane:Mary Ernster

Proskovia: Ann McMann

Raoul St. Brioche: David Portillo

Bodganovich:Ernie Yvon

Pritshitch: Larry Adams

Njegus: Jeff Dumas

Hanna Glawari: Elizabeth Futral

Count Danilo Danilovich: Roger Honeywell

Lolo: Yael Levitin Saban

Dodo: Christina Luzwick

Jou-Jou: Stephanie Martinez Bennitt

Frou-Fou: Andrea Beasom

Clo-Clo: Laura E. Taylor

Margot: Leah Barsky


Elizabeth Futral as Hanna Glawari

Franz Léhar’s Lustige Witwe, The Merry Widow, has rarely been absent from the stage since its premiere in 1905 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Translated into many languages, The Merry Widow was made into a film in 1934 by the Ernst Lubitsch (with Jeannette McDonald and Maurice Chevalier) and again in the 1950s, and it endures through all these changes.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production makes use of the English-language translation by the American lyricist Sheldon Harnick, whose work includes his collaboration with Jerry Bock on Fiddler on the Roof. In the case of The Merry Widow Harnick’s translation is of both dialogue and sung pieces, making the work even more accessible to the audience. The production itself is vivacious and colorful, paying homage to traditional settings.

The story will be familiar: Hanna Glawari, the widow of the title, has the fortune her Eastern European homeland needs to survive, and finding a husband from her countrymen has become an urgent national priority. The man she loves, Danilo Danilovich, is loath to admit that he loves her, and the tension between the two intersects the machinations of Baron Zeta and other political figures to manipulate the situation. As a subplot, the Baron’s wife Valencienne pursues an affair with the Frenchman Camille. The local color and comic interactions are the basis for many of the musical numbers, while the relationship between Hanna and Danilo also involves some sentimentality.

For its new production the Lyric Opera of Chicago included both opera singers and singing actors, a cast which meets the dramatic and musical needs of the work. Familiar to Chicago audiences for her fine performances at Lyric in Handel’s Partenope and Verdi’s La Traviata, Elizabeth Futral gave a polished and dynamic interpretation of the role of Hanna Glawari. Futral’s clear soprano works well in her portrayal of Glawari which, in turn, anchors the production. The range of the role is well within Futral’s voice, and while she was a little tentative with the high notes in the first act, this sorted itself out later. In fact, Futral’s voice gained depth and timbre later in the performance, notably in the “Vilja” song at the opening of the second act and the duet “Heia! See the horseman come!” Futral made the familiar “Vilja” song into a sensitive number, which was fresh because of the subtleties she brought to the performance. Her softer tones were clear and full, as was the upper range, which resonated throughout the hall. In her hands another dimension was added to a character who usually just pursues a Beatrice-and-Benedict relationship with Danilo. This was best seen in the “Heia” duet, which showed her in a more dramatic light, as she sparred musically and dramatically with Honeywell. Futral commanded the stage well in the third act, in which her acting contributed to the fine pacing of the dénouement, since she had already declared at the end of act 2 that she would wed Danilo. For the final ensemble, Futral took the lead, and this gave the appropriate pitch to the concluding number.

As Count Danilo, the tenor Roger Honeywell gave an equally noteworthy performance, and he matched Futral nicely in many regards. While it was difficult at times to hear his spoken lines from some parts of the stage, Honeywell projected well in all the musical numbers. He treated the sometimes shallowly portrayed character of Danilo with welcome sincerity, as was evident in the duet with Futral and elsewhere in the work. The “Weiber-Marsch,” here rendered as “Girls, Girls, Girls” was a chance for Honeywell and the other male principals to offer a little burlesque, which was remarkable for the tight ensemble and crisp rhythms Honeywell and the others brought to the otherwise comic piece. Yet he also offered some touching moments, as in the “Merry Widow Waltz” with Futral, and the reprise of the piece in the final act was effective for almost rubato articulation of the text, so that it sounded spontaneous.

The entire cast seemed committed to this work, especially the secondary couple, Valencienne, the wife of Baron Zeta, and Camille, her lover, portrayed vividly by Andriana Chuchmand and Stephen Costella. Chuchman has an engaging voice and presence. In fact, she worked well with Futral in the Finale to the second act. As Camille, Costello was effective from the start in the duet with Valencienne. He gave a fine performance throughout the work in a role which is sometimes rendered with less earnestness and he made a strong impression in this, his debut role at Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Baron Zeta Dale Travis played the part as a character role, and he worked well dramatically with Jeff Dumas as Njegus. Paul La Rosa, another member of the Lyric ensemble, gave a strong performance as Count Cascada.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume was key to the success of the production, with his masterful leadership of the orchestra. His sense of tempo and pacing were evident in the performance, which never flagged; he used the vocal cues to inaugurate several of the numbers and, in doing so, never masked the dialogue with the orchestral sound. When the music required it, Villaume gave a vivid sound, as at the opening of the second act with the Hungarian-style dance and, in contrast, with the “Vilja” song, he elicited a more subtle tone.

Lyric deserves congratulations for its fine new production of this enduring work. The staging was inviting, the sets a delight, with the design supporting the familiar operetta so that the dramatic action could move smoothly. The final act was particularly appealing with its tableau-vivant evocation of the imagery of cabarets found in the graphic work of Toulouse-Lautrec. This production is attractive, with its fine use of the space at the Civic Opera House. It is a good work for Lyric to stage during the holiday season, and those visiting Chicago may wish to enjoy the new production.

James L Zychowicz

Picture © Dan Rest

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