The new production of Franz Lehár’s frothy The Merry Widow opened (how could it have been otherwise?) on the occasion of the Met’s 2014 New Year’s Eve gala. Lehár’s operetta will be broadcast next Saturday “Live in HD” on approximately 2,000 screens in sixty-seven countries, including more than 800 in the U.S. and an ever increasing number across the globe. Thousands upon thousands of spectators internationally, and the 3,800 or so in the house at Lincoln Center, will see and hear the Austro-Hungarian composer’s 1905 triumph, premiered at the much smaller Theater an der Wien, then with a capacity of 1,230 seats. Directed and choreographed by Broadway’s Susan Stroman, with sets designed by Julian Crouch and costumes by William Ivey Long, this is only the second investiture of Lehár’s popular work in the company’s more than 130-year history.
Opposition to operetta at the huge Met began during the short, flamboyant, roiling regime of Heinrich Conried, general manager from 1903 to 1908, and continues to this day. Conried’s two boldest strokes were, without a doubt, the 1903 first staging of Wagner’s Parsifal outside of Bayreuth and, in 1907, the U.S. premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Less provocative, although still bold, was Conried’s programming of Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus; the next year, he persisted with Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron). The argument against the genre in Conried’s time was two-pronged. Operettas, no matter how charming, even brilliant, had no place at the Met: their dialogue was lost in the vast reaches of the auditorium; their scores were scaled for intimate theatres. One hundred ten years later, in his review of the 2014 gala, the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini sang the same refrain: that despite amplification, the Met is no place for spoken dialogue (“The house is a cavernous place for a genre that relies on dialogue”). In her Wall Street Journal notice, Heidi Waleson agreed (“Operetta, with its long stretches of spoken dialogue, remains an uneasy fit for this big theater and its artists, who are more comfortable projecting emotion and character through song”).
The performance we attended on January 9 bore out the judgment that the Met is inhospitable to the many yards of dialogue and to the musical canvas of The Merry Widow. The cast, for the most part, struggled in vain to put the show over. The very talented Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut role, was easily a match for veteran opera hands Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn, both of whom were challenged by the modest vocal demands of the music, and for her duet partner, tenor Alek Shrader, whose voice invariably faded as he climbed into the upper register. It may well be that, thanks to the microphone and the close-up lens, the “Live in HD” audience will have the aural and visual advantage over the in-house public. As for the choreography and decor, they came to life only in a witty can-can, and in the scene change from Hanna’s garden to the interior of Maxim’s. This last deserved and received the biggest hand of the evening.
The new Merry Widow was intended as a flattering "twilight-of-career" vehicle for Fleming who has announced that she is tapering off her operatic engagements. The Met’s first Merry Widow (2000) was mounted as a farewell for beloved mezzo Frederica von Stade. But before von Stade there had been another pretender to the role of the wealthy widow from the mythical country of Pontevedro. Joan Sutherland was the first to press the Met for the part of Hanna. To her displeasure, she was denied. She got her revenge by withdrawing from the Met from 1978 to 1982. Here is “la Stupenda” as she makes her entrance in a 1979 Sydney performance.
Hanna’s haunting “Viljalied” suited the silky legato and gleaming top notes of Viennese Hilde Güden. Her many operetta recordings document that she was to the manner born.
In a 2004 Zurich production, Piotr Beczala and Ute Gfere sing the Act II Camille-Valencienne duet. Beczala shows off the timbre and style that have brought him to Met stardom.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Erich Kunz offer an irresistible case for the sentiment and erotic power of “The Merry Widow Waltz.” This excerpt is drawn from the nearly complete recording that helped launch Angel records in 1953.