The ingredients needed for successful operetta are as follows: A mythical European country, in this case Pontevedro; a plot that will not strain the mind too much; and lots of great melodies. Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" has these qualities in abundance, and it's no surprise that it is the most performed operetta in the world.
The opera, which made Lehar a millionaire many times over, is still being recorded and performed all over the world, currently by the Baltimore Opera.
German 19th-century opera was so full of experimentation that works like "The Merry Widow" offered audiences a welcome breath of fresh air. The year of "The Merry Widow's" premiere, 1905, also saw the birth of Richard Strauss' "Salome." This gave opera-goers a choice between waltzing to "The Merry Widow" or seeing Salome make love to the severed head of John the Baptist.
The opera takes place in Paris in 1905 and concerns the widow's decision to remarry. Her husband died some years ago, leaving her all the economic assets of their country, Pontevedro. The Pontevedrian ambassador realizes that if the widow marries a foreigner and the widow's funds leave the country, Pontevedro will be ruined. The ambassador enlists his aide, Count Danilo, to either prevent the marriage or marry the widow himself.
Baltimore Opera's production does justice to this work in many ways. It is a pleasure to see it done as grand opera rather than dinner theater. The sets, from the Canadian Opera, are first-rate and the costumes by John Lehmeyer are opulent. Michael Harrison, general director of Baltimore Opera, in his debut as stage director, has everything in the right place and enough stage business to keep us happy. And the choreography by Kimberly Mackin adds charm and zest to the endless party scenes.
Musically speaking, Carol Neblett is well suited to the role of the widow. She is convincing, and her acting is a pleasure to watch. My only complaint is with her diction. It was sometimes hard to understand what she was singing about or which language she was singing in. Baritone Louis Otey, making his Baltimore Opera debut as Danilo, cuts a --ing figure -- especially in the aria "I'm off pTC to Chez Maxime's." Susan Powell handles the role of Valencienne well, and Gran Wilson is a believable and adoring Camille.
I especially enjoyed Woody Romoff as the comic butler, Njegus; he played the role of the major-domo to perfection.
Conductor William Boggs and the orchestra provided a fine underpinning for the opera and kept things moving, with the exception of some static moments in the second act.
Baltimore Opera initially decided to perform "The Merry Widow" without surtitles. Considering that they are performing the work in English, this seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, it was hard to understand the text, and the audience heaved a sigh of relief when the titles came on in the middle of the first number.
The acid test for any operetta performance is, simply, did you enjoy yourself? For the most part, I did.
Where: Lyric Opera House
When: Nov. 15, Nov 17-19
Tickets: $18 to $98
Call: (410) 727-6000