Houston Grand Opera took some criticism this year for "lightening up" its season on the heels of revenue shortfalls and unsettling world events. But after the recent tragedy in the Texas sky, the company's schedule seems both prophetic and comforting. Wrapped in the innocence of a bygone time, the romantic comedy The Merry Widow is certainly more palatable right now than the dark and destructive Don Giovanni would be. The froth and feathered hats of The Merry Widow may seem a tad froufrou, but the joyful story of true love found and a country saved sends the audience out of the theater happy. It's the feel-good operetta of the century.
Since its premiere in Vienna in 1905, the story of Hanna Glawari's search for a new husband has spawned fashion trends, three movies and a ballet. The plot is simple enough: A rich widow from the tiny country of Pontevedro arrives at her embassy in Paris in search of a new husband. The ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta, and his aide Njegus plot to keep Glawari's dough in their home country's banks by hitching Hanna to Pontevedrian playboy Count Danilo Danilovich. Of course, they don't know that Hanna has carried a torch for Danilo since their youthful tryst. She wants him, but she's wary of greedy suitors. He wants her, but he's afraid of looking like a gigolo. When at last she announces she will lose her money if she remarries, Danilo proposes. But it was a ruse! The money actually transfers to her new husband. So the lovers have each other and plenty of cash, the country is safe from bankruptcy, and everyone waltzes the night away at Maxim's.
Of course, there are subplots: Cheating wives, an incriminating fan and elements of political intrigue run like threads through the love story. HGO has taken some liberties in updating the 100-year-old operetta's comedy. One of the biggest laughs of the evening comes as the ambassador protests his love of country, waxing patriotic over its mosquito-infested bayous, ineffective city government and never-ending downtown construction. You know it's an election year when even HGO is taking shots at the city.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham trades in her trousers from Ariodante for Hanna's stunning ball gowns. Showing remarkable versatility, here she is every inch a woman -- beautiful and feminine and believable. She sings her duets with desire and silences the room with her second-act aria: "Vilja, oh, Vilja, be tender, be true." Audiences will fall in love with her all over again, holding their breath through each clear and crystal note.
After seeing the Houston premiere of this San Francisco Opera version of The Merry Widow, it would be impossible to imagine anyone other than Danish baritone Bo Skovhus singing opposite Graham. And it's not just because they're both over six feet tall. Well, that's part of it. That they are so well matched physically adds to the impression that they could be matinee idols. They waltz together fluidly and tower over the rest of the cast as beacons of beauty and grace. Both also have a knack for acting and do well in the spoken sections of the operetta. But it is during their duets that they really show their greatness, blending their voices and playing off of each other effortlessly. We can only hope to see them paired again.
Tenor Chad Shelton does a nice Camille de Rosillon, the man who dallies with the ambassador's wife (sung sweetly by HGO Studio soprano Laquita Mitchell). And bass-baritone Dale Travis turns in an amusing Pontevedrian ambassador. Song-and-dance man Jason Graae steals scenes as the co-conspirator Njegus; he's almost too over-the-top in Act I but does a stellar musical number in Act III with the top-hatted backup dancers at Maxim's. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, although the occasional solo voice tends to get lost in the powerful playing of the HGO Orchestra under Patrick Summers's baton.
Dazzling period costumes by Thierry Bosquet and opulent sets from Michael Yeargan add to stage director Stanley M. Garner's production. Also of note is choreographer Peggy Hickey, who gives us dance numbers that range from Graae's comic Parisian scene and the Ponteverdian mazurkas to cancans and the famous Merry Widow Waltz.
The Merry Widow may be opera light, but it's also opera long. As it clocked in at just over three hours with two 20-minute intermissions, viewers were lucky to arrive home before midnight on opening night. But, in a good indicator of the success of the show, audience hemorrhaging, even during the second intermission, was so light as to be almost unnoticeable.
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