With the advent of spring and the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, what could be more delightful than the start of another season of popular classics at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion? And certainly “delightful” was the operative word for the recent season opener, “The Merry Widow.” The charming operetta, composed by Franz Lehár and directed by Terry John Bates, was beautifully performed by the London Opera Company with notably smooth conducting from Peter Oberfrank. The fine orchestra opened with a crisp and sprightly Overture. Elegance prevailed in both the beautiful Ballroom set and gorgeous period costumes from designers, Keith Dunne and Claire Broad. The opening chorus was thrilling; and the weather in the outdoor amphitheater was very pleasant.
The setting is 19th century Paris. The Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Zeta (George Newton-Fitzgerald) enters with his wife Valencienne (Rebecca Bode). He looks a bit like Daddy Warbucks, and she is beautiful in a white chiffon gown with diamond shoulder straps. Her soprano voice was generally pleasant, but a bit shrill at times. Some of the early dialogue was not clearly audible, but Pavilion sound engineers seemed to quickly remedy the problem. Although sung in English, it was most helpful that the production featured “supertitles,” projecting the text of dialogue above the stage. This made it easier to follow some of the brisk lyrics.
The show really takes off when the wealthy widow, Hanna (Fiona Mariah), enters the ballroom on a grand staircase reminiscent of “Hello Dolly.” Ms. Mariah has a lovely, lilting voice similar to that of film star, Kathryn Grayson. Mariah’s fine diction had the clarity of a well-trained Liza Doolittle. A gorgeous and stately woman, she was dressed in a stunning black velvet gown with an unusual neckline accented with beaded fringe and matching necklace. Her chorus of suitors was in fine voice as well.
Count Danilo (Andrew Mayor) enters, and he and Hanna sing divinely in their humorous and joyful duet, “You’ll Never Catch Me Saying I Love You.” The suitors return with the witty “Serious Reflection Goes Before Election,” which sounds for all the world like a Gilbert & Sullivan tune. Then Danilo sings “Come Away to the Ball,” and is joined by Hanna as the two waltz beautifully amid the subtle delicacy of both orchestra and conductor.
Act II featured more lovely choreography with gay and colorful Pontevedrian folk dances and songs at Hanna’s garden party. There are bright red, white and green peasant costumes, and a Russian flavor to the acrobatic dancing. Then, in a highlight of the evening, Hanna sings the familiar, “Viljia,” the song of the forest nymph. Ms. Mariah knocks the ball out of the park in this remarkable solo. Her superb singing was marred only by a momentary screech from the audio system. It was a mystical performance to complement one of the world’s most beautiful melodies.
Hanna and Danilo have a playful romp with a duet of “Jogging in a One Horse Gig.” For still more fun there were plenty of antics from Njegus, the clerk, energetically and amusingly played by Francois Testory. The suitors offered a crowd pleaser with the comical “How to Manage Willful Women.” As they discover more of each other’s charms, Hanna and Danilo dance the familiar “Merry Widow Waltz,” while the orchestra plays sublimely. The graceful choreography is like an exquisite ballet in slow motion.
Meanwhile, Valencienne has been flirting with the French aristocrat, Rossillon. Their duet of farewell, “The Rose I See Tonight,” uneven at times, does have some pleasant moments. Vocally, this pairing of Ms. Bode and Mr. Allen is not as successful as that of the lead singers, Mariah and Mayor. A few of the scenes and songs are a bit tedious and long, and some of the comic twists may seem silly by today’s standards. But above all that, the rich and melodic music of Franz Lehár reigns supreme. It was the perfect way to avoid four and a half hours of real tedium at home, watching the Oscars!
(The Courier 4.6.02)