Scene from The Merry Widow. Photo by John Grigaitis

The Merry Widow – Franz Lehár
Vancouver Opera
Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver – October 27, 2018

The Vancouver Opera opened their season with a lighthearted operetta, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. The operetta premiered in 1905 in Vienna and indulges in the affairs in Paris of high society characters from a fictional Balkan nation, Ponteverde. The story meanders through  schemes of romance and politics. Irony lingers just enough for humour and realism, but the plot keeps rolling with laughs until everything works out in the end. The dialogue is spoken in English, while the songs are sung in German.

The story relies on the performers to express the nuances of their characters and their relationships, which each of the four principal performers did very well. Lucia Cesaroni premiered in the title role as Hanna Glawari. Her voice was captivating in the Vilja song, and as the Merry Widow, she portrays a character who is as true to love as she is smartly grounded in reality. John Cudia, as Count Danilo Danilovitch, an equal romantic distracted by pleasures of women and wine, fell right into her scheme. Meanwhile, the affair between Valencienne, the Baron’s wife, performed by Sasha Djihanian, and French aristocrat Camille De Rosillon, performed by John Tessier, expressed the conflict between life’s practicalities and the heart.

Decorative sets of art nouveau-styled swirling banisters and interior fixtures depicted the lavish spaces of the embassy, the Widow’s villa and the re-creation of the infamously indulgent Parisien cabaret, Maxim’s. However, they seemed too large for the stage, particularly in the scenes with dancing. One of the waltzing couples looked as if they had to cramp their steps to travel around the staircase before narrowly slipping between two set pieces to exit.

The Vancouver Opera doesn’t have its own company of dancers, so for this production, it brought in eight local dancers and choreographer Joshua Beamish. The dance numbers added the pomp that this operetta needed, particularly the lively can-canning and cartwheeling Grisette show girls at Maxim’s, which included two male dancers in drag. In the ensemble folk dance at the Widow’s villa, dancers repeated gestures such as one hand on the shoulder with the other raised up, and male dancers squatted low to the ground and swept their tucked legs to either side, suggestive of a Cossack dance. But the extra articulations of the head and shoulders, made the phrases a little too busy, especially as they reverberated in the abundant fabric of the costumes. The line of men merrily singing their woes about women formed an amusing chorus line. Unfortunately the waltzes seemed to be compromised by the crowded space and looked more jaunty than graceful.

Scene from The Merry Widow. Photo by John Grigaitis.