Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” at the Lyric Review – Diva, Divo and Most of All DANCING! Delight

It only took the first few opening notes of Franz Lehár’s overture for “The Merry Widow” to let us know that we would walk out of the Civic Opera House uplifted.



The cymbals and brass seemed to especially sparkle under Sir Andrew Davis’ baton.


The opening ballroom scene. Photo: Andrew Cioffi


Then, when the curtain rose to reveal the sumptuous ballroom set (Julian Crouch, Set Designer) and the Lyric audience broke into applause as it so often does when the first set is revealed, our transport into opera magic was complete.  


The ballroom dancers twirl every so lightly and when the male dancers gracefully extend their legs behind with pointed toes they seem at once like elegant standard poodles on parade and the classic aristocrat cartoon cover of The New Yorker


Forget the Paris headlines of the day, we are in gay Paris where joie de vivre was first born …



It only gets better. 


When “The People’s Diva”, Renée Fleming ,playing the lead role of Hanna Glawari, makes her entrance and soon spots her one-time flame Count Danilo Danilovich, played by baritone Thomas Hampson, one imagines that you can feel the diva-divo star-powered jolt when their eyes connect even in the very last rows of the balcony. 


This is a story of old lovers reunited -- Hanna Glawari played by Renee Fleming and Count Danilo Danilovich played by baritone Thomas Hampson


In English, this is an especially accessible story to a modern audience that can appreciate the theme of a second-chance romance.


Renee Fleming is the title role "Merry Widow" and also a very wealthy one who attracts many would-be suitors


Hanna Glawari is a very wealthy widow in an imagined Slavic country, Pontevedro, which is on the verge of bankruptcy.  The Pontevedro Ambassador to Paris, Baron Mirko Zeta (played by Patrick Carfizzi) is hell-bent to keep Glawari and her fortune in Pontevedro and enlists his countrymen to this end, and most especially the highly eligible bachelor Count Danilovich.  



It turns out Hanna and Count Danilovich are one-time lovers who still seem to have a flame burning for each other, but now find themselves in very different circumstances.  The Count is loath to be seen as just another one of the fortune hunters courting Hanna.  Hanna, on the other hand, seems to take the greater interest in her bank account than her person in stride.  The Count is different, however.  From him she wants the words “I love you” freely given, and how Hanna predictably gets what she wants is what the opera is about, with some comic sideshows on how others get their love needs sated through adultery.


Heidi Stober as Valencienne, with her husband Baron Mirko Zeta played by Patrick Carfizzi


Lehár‘s catchy story and music is made totally accessible and joyful in the hands of the much awarded Director and Choreographer of “The Merry Widow”, Susan Stroman.  


Camille de Rosillon, played by tenor Michael Spyres, woos Valencienne (played by Heidi Stober), the wife of the Baron, by writing of his love on her fan


Call it “the Broadway touch” or call it “opera for beginners”, this is an easy-to-digest production that unleashes the music to uplift and lighten your spirits. 


Thomas Hampson as the handsome and rakish Count Danilo Danilovich


For starts, the libretto has been translated into English making it easy as pie to follow. 


The men of Pontevedro, at times in a singing line dance, sing of how inscrutable women are-- then showing their keen interest as one walks by


Many of the lines are funny in and of themselves, especially the too-honest quips by the scheming Baron’s sidekick Njegus (played by Jeff Dumas).   Others are given a comic slant by almost Vaudevillian act deliveries.  For example, every time Carfizzi/the Baron pauses before he says “Pontevedro” he evokes memories of “Hail Fredonia” in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. 


Fleming held aloft at the party she is hosting to celebrate the local customs of Pontevedro



Some will like that most of the story of “The Merry Widow” comes through acting, not song.  Others may feel, as this reviewer does, that when Fleming so sweetly sang the opening of Act 2, “Vilja”, she was ending a drought.  All the talking, it seems, deepens your thirst for great song that you expect in Lyric’s hall.  Talky though it may be at times, that thirst is so deliciously quenched again and again when Lehár‘s music and the singing begins anew.


Folk tradition inspired dancing in Act 2


Yes, expect truly beautiful songs sung by the best. 


The dancing ensemble in Act 3. Photo: Andrew Cioffi


BUT, if there is any one aspect of this production of “The Merry Widow” that alone contributes to this opera lifting you to the upper reaches of joy it is the standout choreography, especially in Act 3 when Can-Can dancers flounce their skirts with spirit. 


The Grisettes take center stage dancing in Act 3


Fast-moving and energetic, the six “Grisettes” (Ariane Dolan, Alison Mixon, Emily Pynenburg, Annelise Baker, Jen Gorman, and Catherine Hamilton) are a five-course meal of fun.


The Can-Can dances in Act 3 are joyfully reprised also during the curtain bows


(Meet a Merry Widow Grisette up close by reading “Splash Extra – Meet Clo-Clo, a.k.a. Jen Gorman.“)


If you are a Lyric regular you may have come to expect lush scenery and costumes (Costume Designer, William Ivey Long), lighting that trains our eyes to the right spots and emotions, notably a rosy frame for our in-the-pink mood in Act 1 (Original Lighting Designer, Paule Constable and Lighting Designer for Lyric, Chris Maravich)—but you probably don’t equate your Lyric ticket first and foremost with a night of dazzling dance.  In this production of “The Merry Widow” you will.


The cast in Act 2


Now through December 13.



20 North Wacker Drive

Chicago, IL 60606


For information and tickets visit the Lyric Opera website or call the Lyric box office at 312) 827-5600.




Photos:  Todd Rosenberg, unless otherwise indicated


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