Richard and I saw this Léhar operetta at the Met on 1/20. It’s a new production, mounted for reigning American opera star Renée Fleming. She’s retiring from opera in the next few years, and this is part of her multi-year, multi-city opera farewell. And we had a celebrity sighting when we arrived at the Met, another American performer of a certain age: Christine Baranski!
I’d never seen this show before, and really enjoyed it. It gives you the rare pleasure of watching two middle-aged singers playing middle-aged characters. What a treat. Léhar constructs the piece so cleverly, you can see how operetta is really the model for the Broadway musical. An example: the two leads have spent the whole show denying their love for each other. They get together at the end of the show, dancing to the famous “Merry Widow Waltz”, heard for the first time since the overture. They don’t sing, they don’t talk, they just gently waltz to that heavenly tune. It was magical.
Nathan Gunn was the leading man. He’s terribly handsome, has a gorgeous voice, and is bursting with charisma. You couldn’t ask for anything more in this part. Broadway star Kelli O’Hara made her Met debut as the ingénue. She was wonderful, sang beautifully, of course she has absolute comfort onstage, and she looked like a dream in her costumes. Richard thought her voice was very tiny, but I wasn’t bothered by that. Her husband was played by the great English baritone Sir Thomas Allen, who I’ve admired for years but had never heard live. He was superb, a real pro.
Which brings us to Renée. On the one hand she was great: she commands the stage in a warm, effortless way. She looked gorgeous - - six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long was also making his Met debut making the costumes, and they better have him back! Gorgeous, wow. Anyway, back to Renée. The problem with her was the singing. Sometimes she sings with a delicious line, the voice blooms, all is right with the world. But she gilds the lily, it makes my skin crawl. She had a line where she sang, “When the sky turns grey”, and she gave us a perfectly poised, precious little brushstroke on the word “grey”. A little of that goes a long way, and she spreads it pretty thick. Just sing already.
The highlight of the show was the production. Broadway director Susan Stroman was making her Met debut as director and choreographer. No one could have done a better job with this show, she embraced the sentiment and corniness, but was never for a moment ironic about it. She even choreographed the Met chandeliers! They typically go up before the conductor walks into the pit, but for this show, they stayed down and lit through half of the overture, and at a certain transition point they dimmed and went up. Adorable!
The curtain went up on a group of dancers waltzing - - the audience applauded the set, which you don’t see so much anymore. The waltz ended with the men dipping the women and the women demurely bringing their fans up to their faces, to hide the kiss that the man was about to give them. It perfectly set the tone of sweet, corny Old World charm.
The general pacing was brisk but not hurried, an immeasurable improvement over the Met’s last operetta, *Die Fledermaus*, which was four hours long and leaden in the extreme. There was a number in Act II for eight men, and Stroman staged it with six spotlights and a lot of razzle dazzle. It felt like a number from an MGM Mario Lanza musical. Richard said that MGM stole this kind of shtick from operetta, and he’s probably right, but the colors and the verve made me think of a 50s movie. The high point of the show was the scene change from the leading lady’s patio to Maxim’s. Seven can-can dancers come onstage and did the can-can while the set changed around them, coming down from the flies, rising up from the floor, rolling on from the sides. It was grand, it was colorful, it was thrilling. I got the feeling that Stroman said to her production team: “OK folks - - this is THE MET.”