Lyric Opera of Chicago enjoyed a successful opening night with their rendition of Franz Lehár’s operetta, The Merry Widow, a tale of levity and love in Belle Epoque Paris. A talented cast, sensitive orchestral accompaniment headed by Sir Andrew Davis, and lavish sets and costumes made for a luminous performance.

Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) and Chorus © Todd Rosenberg
Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) and Chorus
© Todd Rosenberg

 Headlining a star-studded cast was American opera icon Renée Fleming. Her well-deserved reputation precedes her. A palpable buzz of energy could be felt before her initial entrance, and her magnetic stage presence as Hanna Glawari continued to compel throughout. Fleming has a glorious, honeyed tone in her middle and high registers, but it was often difficult to catch her lower notes. Despite this, the soaring heights and success reached in arias like the “Vilja” song left a favorable impression overall.

Thomas Hampson as Danilo proved a wonderful counterpart to Fleming’s character. Hampson buoyed Fleming’s prim Hanna Glawari with entertaining vim and banter – his mix of rakishness and bashful acting would make Hugh Grant proud. The singing was magnificent too, with the aria “Es waren zwei Königskinder” marrying Hampson’s acting prowess with articulate, passionate singing.

Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) and Thomas Hampson (Count Danilo) © Todd Rosenberg
Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) and Thomas Hampson (Count Danilo)
© Todd Rosenberg

 A pair of Lyric Opera debutants, Heidi Stober and Patrick Carfizzi, rendered Merry Widow’s secondary couple, Valencienne and Baron Zeta, with mastery and mirth. Stober was a flighty, flirty Valencienne and a thrilling soprano. Carfizzi’s Baron carried much of the opera’s narrative with blustering humor and impressive projection. Entangled with Valencienne (compromisingly) and the Baron is the character Camille de Rosillon, sung by Michael Spyres. Spyres and Stober had great chemistry, and shared an electric duet in Act II (accompanied by concertmaster Robert Hanford’s gorgeous solo playing).

A few cast members impressed mainly with their comedic contributions, as the music Lehár composed for their characters was insignificant (or nonexistent). Actor Jeff Dumas was hilarious as the bumbling servant Njegus, and tenor Jonathan Johnson and baritone Paul La Rosa provided antagonistic antics as St Brioche and Cascada. Rounding out the comedy in the finale were the rowdy Grisettes (can-can dancers cum ladies of the night) who were raunchy in their dancing and amusingly grating in their chorus moments.

<i>The Merry Widow</i> Act I © Todd Rosenberg
The Merry Widow Act I
© Todd Rosenberg

The fine singing and acting were complemented by eye-catching sets, apt dance choreography, and lavish period costuming. Commendation is richly deserved here by a trio of behind-the-scenes masterminds, director and choreographer Susan Stroman, set designer Julian Crouch, and costume designer William Ivey Long. The dancers were especially effective, capturing the essence of each major set change before the singing began.

The Merry Widow is an amusing romp through and through, but the evening began on a serious and reflective note. In light of the recent tragedy in Paris, general director Anthony Freud offered a short speech before the operetta began, honoring those fallen in the terrorist attacks. The audience then stood for the French national anthem in a poignant moment of solidarity. It was bittersweet to behold the life and love of fictional Parisians portrayed on stage tonight, but also cathartic. Music can offer both release and balm for the troubles of the world.

****1