- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Virginia Opera’s charming revival of Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow” opened and closed its brief run at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this past weekend.

With sweeping art nouveau scenery designed by Erhard Rom, elegant period costuming and talented singers who also know how to act, this production was unabashedly traditional, bringing back the days of the elegant Europe that existed — at least for the upper classes — until the whole edifice came crashing down in 1914.

Operetta-light opera, or “opera lite” as some detractors refer to it, has suffered from neglect over the last century. Extraordinarily popular from roughly the mid-19th century to about 1930, these delightful confections, direct precursors to the modern Broadway musical, were usually romantic comedies that alternated witty, spoken dialogue with toe-tapping songs and production numbers. It was good to see Mr. Lehar’s enchanting masterpiece onstage once again, particularly in an uncommonly fine production such as this one.

Perhaps the most popular operetta ever written, “The Merry Widow” (“Die lustige Witwe”) is loaded with the kind of singable tunes that were soon to become unfashionable in grand opera. Most popular of all is the 1905 operetta’s romantic “Merry Widow Waltz” which soon rapidly proliferated via sheet music and the new medium of that era, the phonograph. Even today, it’s still not uncommon to encounter this irresistibly sweet confection on music boxes or in glitzy hotel lobbies.

Based on a French play, “The Merry Widow” is largely set at the Paris embassy of tiny Pontevedria, Mr. Lehar’s loosely disguised satirical reference to the then (and still) troubled Balkan country of Montenegro. Pontevedria is nearly bankrupt; left in hock to a rich noble who has just died, bequeathing everything — including the Pontevedrian mortgages — to his flirtatious young common-born wife, Hanna Glawari. Should she marry a Frenchman, Pontevedria would be doomed. So Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Zeta, frantically tries to marry her off to her old flame, Count Danilo, to keep the wealth in-country, oblivious to the dalliance that his own wife, Valencienne, is carrying on with the Frenchman Camille. This fine diplomatic mess is solved, of course, by a good three hours of wonderful music.

Friday’s audience came for a good time, and they weren’t disappointed, happily assisting conductor Dan Saunders from time to time by singing along and clapping rhythmically during the Slavic-style dance numbers.

And they had a lot to be happy about. The production was good, clean, slightly risque fun, making one long for the days of the wink and the nudge that have been shoved aside by TV’s current coarseness. The Virginia Opera’s cast was generally first rate. Soprano Diane Alexander was gloriously expansive as the glamorous Hanna Glawari, bewitching all the men onstage with her beauty and her wealth, and delighting operagoers with a splendidly clear voice that nailed every single top note without effort. Likewise, tenor Tracey Welborn proved the perfect romantic lead — tall, debonair, and with an authoritative instrument that seemed to gain power and stature as the evening proceeded.

In the smaller roles of Valencienne and Camille, soprano Saundra DeAthos and tenor Harold Gray Meers also excelled, although Mr. Meers tended to strain noticeably in the upper registers. Meanwhile, bass-baritone Terry Hodges (Baron Zeta) and baritone Curt Olds (Njegus, Zita’s comical sidekick) provided the comic ballast for the production.

Although surtitles were provided for this English language production, the singers’ diction was so clear that they were usually unnecessary. The Virginia Opera Orchestra accompanied them ably, though the balance was off somewhat in the first act, as the instrumentalists occasionally drowned out the singing. This was largely corrected in the final two stanzas.

Based in Norfolk, the Virginia Opera generally opens its productions there, brings them up to Fairfax and then down I-395 to Richmond, returning for a final weekend in Norfolk. It’s been a good working arrangement over the years, allowing the company to survive and prosper even in a difficult arts environment. But with a wonderful show like this one, it’s a shame they couldn’t have booked another few dates in Northern Virginia

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