The Boston Lyric Opera (the “BLO”) finished its season – and its tenure at the Shubert Theatre – with Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow. This closing of one chapter and moving onto another was emphasized by the directorial choice of setting the production on the Eve of World War I – New Year’s Eve, to be precise – rather than its original 1905 setting. Clever to emphasize the progression from one place or time to another; that is, until it became apparent that the only directorial vision was “to be clever.”
The story is simple: the Pontevedrian Ambassador in Paris, Baron Zeta, conspires to keep the wealthy widow, Hanna Glawari, and her fortune in Pontevedro by marrying her off to a fellow countryman. Many subplots exist – the proposed suitor is Count Danilo, who prior to her first marriage, had an affair with Hanna; Zeta’s wife, Valencienne, is torn between her attraction to Camille, a French attaché, and her desire to be a respectable wife.
There are undoubtedly arguments to be made for giving depth to an otherwise “frivolous” story. On the other hand, why not let the effervescent music speak for itself rather than weighing it down with heavy-handed meaning?
Director Lillian Groag returns to the BLO after previously directing Madama Butterfly, Idomeneo, and Agrippina. Reading Groag’s Program Notes, it is evident that she has a unique connection to this piece. Her father was Viennese and instilled his view in her “that the downbeat of a regular waltz was just a thud while the downbeat of a Viennese waltz was ‘regret.’” By setting The Merry Widow on the eve of WWI, the notion of regret coupled with nostalgia for the fin de siècle in a quickly-modernizing and changing world, is palpable.
While many of Groag’s ideas could serve the material, she would have greatly benefitted from a dramaturgical eye in allowing the source material to breathe through the layers that she placed on top of it. Not only was there an overabundance of ideas regarding the importance of time and place, there was an overzealous idea to make the text at once relatable and also of-the-period. Groag wrote a new book for the operetta, and, according to her description in The Boston Globe, she “didn’t make the jokes contemporary; I just made them acerbic and witty and fast and, forgive me for saying so, funnier.” Clocking in at roughly three hours, and a three-hour period that felt like it, there was nothing “fast” about the piece.
I am certainly not someone to shy away from base humor, easily finding as much joy in the antics of Judd Apatow or Amy Schumer as in the witticisms of Oscar Wilde. However, to pander to an educated audience with a phallic joke so-obviously placed as to be groan-inducing is simply unnecessary. Though, if it will get the kids to the opera… (There weren’t any kids at the opera.)
Perhaps at the crux of my disappointment is that it felt like too much time was spent on ideas for the production, rather than on allowing the performers to work on the interpersonal relationships.
In a story that hinges on Hanna and Danilo’s past passionate affair and present struggle to avoid falling for one another again, we need to believe that either was capable of instilling passion. Instead, the audience gets flat stereotypes of an American ex-Ziegfeld dancer and a faux-Parisian cad.
Erin Wall, making her BLO debut, executes the brashness of the Americanized Hanna in the louder songs with her more-than-capable voice. It is in the quieter moments, in particular the folk song, “Vilja,” that this interpretation of Hanna feels out of place. Also making his BLO debut is Roger Honeywell as the bon vivant Danilo. Honeywell’s acting far outshines his leading lady’s, but her singing (along with the rest of the cast’s) vastly overshadows his.
The other performers were the production’s strongest element. John Tessier and Chelsea Basler, as Camille and Valencienne, respectively, gave the audience the passionate love story missing from the center of this piece. The relationship that stood out the most was that of Baron Zeta, hilariously oblivious and exquisitely sung by Andrew Wilkowske, and his orderly Kivowitz, played by actor Alex Portenko. Kivowitz’s warning of the war to come, based on actually reading the letters that come in rather than brushing them off like the rest of the men, is one of the only moments that rings true. Sadly, that poignant moment is immediately thrown aside to focus on Hanna and Danilo moving to Boston to open a bar.
It should be noted, in perhaps the most cohesive element of the production, that John Conklin’s set design and Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes easily transported the audience to a kaleidoscopically colorful Art Deco and Art Nouveau designs were a feast for the eyes.
Just because something is a good idea in discussion doesn’t mean it is actionable on the stage. It seems strange to take a lighthearted operetta, add layers of historical meaning and depth, and then try to offset it with famous quotes and witticisms from the Edwardian era, as well as the sigh-inducing contemporary reference, “make Pontevedro great again.” The directorial conceit could not decide whether it wanted to be contemporarily relevant, or firmly set in pre-WWI decline.
There is a great difference between an idea and its execution. If you add too much salt to a strudel, adding more sugar isn’t going to solve the problem; it’s going to puff up and then fall flat. Sometimes, less is just more.