Monday, November 30, 2015

Hail Renée: Fleming Makes for a Mirthful 'Merry Widow' at the Lyric -- Chicago Opera Review

Chicago Opera / Theater Review

The Merry Widow
an operetta by Franz Lehár
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru December 13
(Nicole Cabell replaces Renée Fleming
in title role after December 3rd performance)

The last time I saw Renée Fleming, I wasn't even on the outside looking in.

But rather at a video screen on the side of a building.

It was June 2013 and I happened to be in Vienna, Austria, while Fleming was starring in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at the grand Vienna State Opera.

Although the theater was just a few feet from my hotel and I took a tour of it, Capriccio was sold-out, with even face value seats predominantly pricier than I could justify, let alone scalper's tickets had I known where to find them.

It would have been cool to see Fleming--by then serving as a Creative Consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago--on stage in Vienna, but as a tourism experience, sitting alongside the opera house with a large crowd of tourists and locals as the opera was broadcast from within may well have been even cooler.

I've seen Fleming at the Lyric a couple times before, and seeing her in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow once again gave me no reason to doubt that she is--as often acclaimed--one of the best opera singers in the world.

Yet quite honestly, everyone I hear at the Civic Opera House sounds outstanding to me, and I really doubt if I could distinguish much vocal difference between Fleming and any other prima donna, even those relatively new to prestigious opera roles and houses.

But still a striking presence in her mid-50s, the soprano is also an engaging actress, and while I am ill-qualified to pen any sort of comparative critique, I found Fleming and The Merry Widow rather delightful.

It is deemed an operetta, lighter in tone and musicality than most classic operas, and while I could perceive some differences--including considerable spoken dialogue--here too I lack the wherewithal to provide much contrast, particularly as most "operas" seem to have slight, silly, melodramatic librettos (i.e. plot lines).

Still, as anyone who has read any of my previous opera reviews could likely recite at this point, though I admire, appreciate and enjoy most operas I see, I still fail to emotionally embrace the art form--or any particular opera--the way I do Broadway musicals and great rock concerts.

And I will say that this essentially remained true at The Merry Widow, which I had also seen at Lyric in 2010.

But given the presence and quality of Fleming, her terrific co-star Thomas Hampson--this is the third time I've seen them paired--the other singers in principal roles (Heidi Stober, Michael Spyres) and many oft-enjoyed Chicago theater performers largely in speaking and/or dancing roles (Jeff Dumas, Michael Weber, Fred Zimmerman, Jennie Sophia, Ariane Dolan and more), The Merry Widow was about as acutely enjoyable as a night at the opera gets for me.

It also helped that this lavish production is directed by Susan Stroman, who helmed my all-time favorite Broadway musical, The Producers.

Although originally written by Lehár in German, the operetta has been performed in numerous languages, and here it is delivered in English (though supertitles still helped).

While there is sublime operatic singing by Fleming, Hampson and others, there are also some lively choral numbers that veer a bit closer to Broadway musical stylings.

The story isn't deep, as it involves a hugely wealthy widow (Hanna, played by Fleming) from the fictional country of Pontevedrian attending an Embassy ball in Paris, where in order to keep her wealth within his country's coffers the ambassador tries to set her up with a Pontevedrian playboy of sorts, who happens to be her former lover (Danilo, enacted by Hampson with a rogue charm).

The melodrama is relatively easy to follow, and pretty fun, especially in looping in some adultery and
deception among secondary characters, plus a visit to the sexy Parisian dance hall, Maxim's, where a cadre of fetching grisettes dance the Can-Can.

So while I can't speak to The Merry Widow's relative merits within the operatic canon or how this production compares to other versions--even the one I saw in 2010--nor can I truthfully say that I found it preferable to a first-rate musical or concert, simply in terms of abundantly entertaining and pleasing me, the current rendition rates rather high.

And any chance to see Renée Fleming perform on an opera stage is a welcome one.

Especially from inside the theater.

As of this writing, Fleming performs as Hanna once more, on Thursday afternoon. The also rather esteemed Nicole Cabell assumes the role for the Lyric's final 3 performances, and with the rest of the cast remaining intact, I have to imagine The Merry Widow will remain rather enchanting.

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