What a delight to attend The Metropolitan Opera's gala opening of The Merry Widow on New Years Eve! Broadway star director Susan Stroman's new production, with English version by Jeremy Sams (of The Enchanted Isle infamy), had comedy, romance and fun. Franz Lehár's rich harmonies and luscious melodies were beautifully spun by a very capable cast and The Metropolitan Opera's world class orchestra and chorus, under the experienced baton of Sir Andrew Davis.

Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari) © Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera
Renée Fleming (Hanna Glawari)
© Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera

As with most operetta, the story is a bit complicated. The small nation of Pontevedro must keep the widow Hanna Glawari's immense fortune in the country or face economic disaster, so she must be prevented from marrying a foreigner (interesting assumption that a widow must remarry). Baron Zeta, Pontevedrian Ambassador to France, appoints Count Danilo Danilovitch to marry her, not knowing the two have a romantic history. Intrigues, beautifully sung arias and ensembles, lively dance numbers, and occasional hilarity ensue, but all is right in the end.

Ms Stroman deserves accolades for the direction and choreography of this production, particularly in the second half of the evening, for the show gained momentum; Acts II and III were quite good. The dance numbers were lively and performed with precision and joy by members of the The Metropolitan Opera Ballet and a gaggle of well-rehearsed singing Grisettes. Ms Stroman's talents at crowd control were demonstrated in abundance. Even the curtain call was the best staged curtain call I've seen at the Met. The dialogue could have been tighter and more spontaneous, especially in Act I, but for opera singers it was better than average. Set designer Julian Crouch, costume designer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Paule Constable also deserve praise for a show that was a visual treat from beginning to end.

Nathan Gunn (Count Danilo Danilovich) © Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera
Nathan Gunn (Count Danilo Danilovich)
© Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera

The cast deserved very high praise indeed. Renée Fleming was Hanna Glawari, all glamour and poise and luscious tone, lovely to watch and hear. Her entrance aria, "If I was a Parisian" (if I were a dramaturg I might correct that title) was lively and quickly acquainted the audience with Hanna's zest and humor. The "Vilja Song" was a luxuriant, radiant show of legato singing and rich, creamy tone. Nathan Gunn was Danilo Danilovitch, all manly but boyish bravado and beautiful singing.

Veteran Broadway ingenue Kelli O'Hara and tenor Alek Shrader sang Baroness Zeta and the Count de Rosillon, the storyline's younger couple – or almost couple, for it is really only a flirtation between the two. Or is it? Ms O'Hara acquitted herself vocally quite well, and was a delight to watch. Her dance with the Grisettes was one of the high points of the evening. Mr Shrader, known for his role in the documentary "The Audition", sang quite well and played the ardent young lover very well.

Nathan Gunn (Count Danilo), Thomas Allen (Zeta) and Alexander Lewis (Raoul) © Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera
Nathan Gunn (Count Danilo), Thomas Allen (Zeta) and Alexander Lewis (Raoul)
© Ken Howard | The Metropolitan Opera

I wished the role of Baron Zeta had been larger, for dear Sir Thomas Allen was underutilized vocally. (One hears through the grapevine that he is a very kind and supportive mentor to his younger colleagues in the cast.) Character actor Carson Elrod deserves high praise for his performance in the spoken role of Embassy Secretary Njegus.

This is a very enjoyable production – light and frothy, as it was intended to be. Highly recommended.

***11