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Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Fine Family Fortune

WHAT “THE MERRY WIDOW” DEMANDS, first and foremost, is a hushed, haunting “Vilia” at the top of Act Two, in which the titular widow evokes the spirit of a wood-nymph who enchants a hunter even as Franz Lehár’s gentle melody enchants the chorus, who join it at key moments, and the audience, who probably, with little encouragement, would sing along as well.

John Tibbetts, Quinn Bernegger,
and Cecilia Violetta López
Although probably not “as well” in the other sense of the phrase, because Opera Saratoga’s performers, chorus and principals alike, brought a stellar array of voices to bear upon this production, the company’s first for 30 years. Cecilia Violetta López easily met the challenge of portraying Hanna Glawari, Pontevedro’s wealthy widow, who charms all of the men in her wake with her beauty and, of course, a shot at her fortune.

We’re in Paris, where Baron Zeta, the cash-poor country’s ambassador, has been charged with making sure that she only marries a fellow Pontevedrian, and baritone Andy Papas runs wild with the role, indulging in a frenzy of eye-rolling and fits of exasperation worthy of ’30s actor Walter Connolly. His hope is to marry the widow to the rakish Count Danilo, but Danilo, when finally located at Maxim’s, evinces no interest. Alex Lawrence has a wonderful voice that he uses to thrilling effect. His characterization, however, is hampered by a common acting trap, in which the diffidence he’s supposed to play comes across as unpleasant petulance.

The haughty Danilo is shamming, of course. He and Hanna will spar for the rest of the operetta, their antagonism a well-honored plot fuel that gives rise to a succession of lushly lyrical songs, many of them (like the waltz that’s named for the opera) in three-quarter time.

That’s the genius of the piece, and it put the young Lehár on the map even as Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan had moved the operetta world well beyond such conventions. In its day, “The Merry Widow” harkened to an older world; when it’s presented now, that yearning becomes all the more poignant.

It can’t captivate by wit or plot, although this production makes the unfortunate choice of spicing dialogue scenes with contemporary and fourth-wall-breaking jokes, which get the intended laughs but also remind us how very vulnerable the world of this opera has become: pierce the illusion even slightly and you’ve suddenly left Maxim’s and are looking at actors upon a stage.

The set and costumes offer what they can, but Saratoga’s Spa Little Theatre, the company’s home, offers a small stage upon which the orchestra, too, must be squished, so great credit is due scenic designer Cameron Anderson, who offers an art nouveau backdrop to the goings-on, and costume designer Glenn Avery Breed, who dresses the cast in radiant formalwear, in Pontevedrian native togs that skillfully stop just short of being absurd, and, for the third act, the seductive grisettes sport provocative can-can dresses.

Ultimately, it’s the magic of the music that wins the day. The story also gives us the romance of
Valencienne (Megan Pachecano) and the French attaché Camille de Rosillon (Scott Quinn) – but Valencienne is married to Baron Zeta, and so urges Camille to marry the widow and thus be no longer a threat. Or something like that. They get the lovely Act Two duet “Love in my heart,” a high point of the piece.

Chief among Hanna’s suitors are the diplomats Cascada (John Tibbetts) and St. Brioche (Quinn Bernegger), who pursue her with a frenzied athleticism that certainly looks fun but which, along with the shrill prop whistles blasted by embassy messenger Njegus (Bradley Bickhardt), suggest that director John de los Santos lacks enough faith in the material to let it stand for itself. (But he makes up for it with nice choreography well-fitted to the diminutive stage.)

It’s worth again stressing that the voices here are so first-rate that, once the songs begin, you can forgive much of such shenanigans. Conductor Anthony Barrese led the excellent orchestra, whose leader, violinist Amy Gidden, took some heart-melting solos.

Performances continue at 2 PM Sunday, July 1 and 8, and 7:30 PM Friday, July 13.

The Merry Widow
Music by Franz Lehár
Original libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein
Conducted by Anthony Barrese
Directed and Choreographed by John de los Santos
Opera Saratoga
Spa Little Theatre, Saratoga Springs, June 29

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