In the more than a decade since Peter Gelb has been appointed General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, he has constantly promoted a wonderful idea: enrich the musically outstanding Met productions by inviting theatrical luminaries, from outside opera’s coterie of globetrotting directors, to stage both classics of the repertoire and new works. In terms of critical success, his initiative has had mixed results, including several disappointing productions. Unfortunately, The Merry Widow, premiered on New Year’s Eve 2014 and revived here, is one of them.

Susan Graham (Hanna Glawari) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Susan Graham (Hanna Glawari)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Susan Stroman is a renowned Broadway choreographer and director with five Tony Awards and several major successes to her name, so one would have expected her to use her magic wand and inject new dynamics into Die Lustige Witwe, Lehár’s most famous operetta. Instead, her production is quite conventional, at least in the first two acts. It captures neither the glitzy froth nor the angst imbued wistfulness of the pre-Great War European society. The opulent ball scene at the “Pontevedrian” Embassy in Paris was rather stolid, with female dancers occasionally just making sure they don’t trip over their dresses. The sets (Julian Crouch) for the second act’s garden party, with an assortment of two-dimensional “statues” of rotund heroes and a perfectly centered image of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica illuminated by both a full moon and fake fireworks, were almost kitschy. The “Pontevedrian” costumes (William Ivey Long) were overboard, trying to mimic “Balkan” sources… Nevertheless, after two hours of platitudes, Stroman succeeds in creating a true directorial coup de théâtre: in front of the public’s eyes, the garden is inventively transformed onstage into a rendition of the nightclub “Chez Maxim” with décors inspired by Art Nouveau imagery. The stage quickly becomes as crowded as before but can-can dancers, appearing from above and below with their skirts swirling, quickly infuse the performance with an energy that was almost absent in the first two acts.

Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

As Hanna Glawari, the rich widow who is the opera’s central character, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham relied on her significant experience, in both dramatical and comedic roles, to perform with plenty of confidence. She naturally moved back and forth between singing and speaking, portraying a woman with limited illusions and no pretensions. Even if her voice sounded a tad shaky in the top notes, she honorably met all the relatively modest vocal demands of her role. Her silky, lyrical legato in the second act’s Vilja Lied was still outstanding, clearly bringing forward the darker, romantic side of the character.

As Hanna is often interpreted by a soprano, her on and off love interest, Count Danilo Danilovitch, is often sung by a baritone. Here, the role was taken by tenor Paul Groves, so the vocal balance in their duets – such as the remarkable melodious waltz “Lippen schweigen” in the last act – should have been somehow maintained. Groves sounded tired at times, even though he sang with a lot of dedication, but appeared to be more courteous and hesitant than cynical and debauched.

David Portillo (Camille) and Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
David Portillo (Camille) and Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The secondary love pair seemed a little unbalanced as well. Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman was Valencienne, the coquettish, wayward, young wife of the “Pontevedrian” ambassador. She chirped adorably in her upper register and moved with a lot of ease among the grisettes at Maxim’s. Tenor David Portillo’s Camille de Rosillon was quite stiff and unable to match her charm. As the cuckolded husband, veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen, his voice holding up beautifully and his diction irreproachable, proved how a secondary character can sway the stage. He was as spry, vocally and physically, as singers half his age. As everyone else, he had to struggle with the flat-footed, leaden English adaptation of the libretto with never-landing jokes and incongruous rhymes. The choice to translate the operetta’s original lines was meant probably to help native English soloists to avoid the pitfalls of German spoken text. It didn’t really make things easier for the Met spectators used, for years, to having English translations available literally at their fingertips.

Sir Thomas Allen (Baron Zeta) and Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Sir Thomas Allen (Baron Zeta) and Andriana Chuchman (Valencienne)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Making his debut as the conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra, Ward Stare, music director of the Rochester Philharmonic, did his best to avoid overwhelming the singers. Lehár’s score is full of splendid melodic moments that could have been made more prominent. Overall, a solid and colorful orchestral performance.