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Lolo, Dodo, Joujou: Their Era Ends


John Tessier and Chelsea Basler (T. Charles Erikson photo)
John Tessier and Chelsea Basler (T. Charles Erikson photo)

Lillian Groag’s considerate production of Lehár’s Merry Widow rang down a bittersweet curtain on Boston Lyric Opera’s 18 years at the Shubert Theater. Last night, the playhouse, which opened in 1910 with The Taming of the Shrew, projected the sometimes interminable spoken words with wonderful clarity, as it was built to do. And Groag’s respectful new book which moved the proceedings a few years forward to the eve of World War I and the end of La Belle Époque, gave a gravity (needed or not) to the comedy of manners. It helped glue the variety-show or vaudeville aspects which the Shubert Brothers could easily have understood and marketed, into a sometimes sober reflection on deeper mores.

Lehár’s life can be seen as something of an encapsulation of the transformations that Groag highlights. His Jewish wife, “elevated” by Goebbels into honorary Aryan status, did not damage his career any more than his connections with the part-Jewish tenor Richard Tauber, perhaps the most brilliant ennobler and exponent of his work. Lehár tinkered with his most famous operetta enough over his lifetime that he would have understood the motivation in a later era to find a bit more spine in the confection of madcap Marx brothers style dialog, varied dance numbers and immortal tunes.

Groag’s insertion of sage advice from the likes of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde along with the decision to mix up languages and accents gave the show some cosmopolitan chatter that suited it perfectly. On the other hand, her book’s references to Jews including a black-hatted stereotype who kept appearing with a placard announcing the end of the world made one wonder. One might also ask for a bit more clarity on the meaning of the theatrically effective soldier’s chorus somberly reprising the Merry Widow Waltz during the slow final curtain. In what army did their loden fieldcoats place them? Did the red lapel ribbons identify them in a way cognoscenti of uniforms could understand? Were they WWI French, Germans, or Russians?  Or were they foreshadowing the Nazis of the next war? That interpretation might explain the Jewish supernumerary. I got the delicious irony, but the effect was imprecise.

ERin Wall as the merry widow (T. Charles Erikson photo)
Erin Wall as the merry widow (T. Charles Erikson photo)

John Conklin’s colorfully painted flats enthusiastically conflated styles of William Morris, Hector Guimard and Joseph Hoffman as they served handsomely for the Ponteverdian embassy reception hall, a garden in its grounds and a fantasy Maxim’s. Robert Wierzel lighted with rhythmic sensitivity and variety. His use of a footlighted solo and evocative silhouetting showed apt attention to mood.

BLO’s excellent chorus has a lot to do in this outing and they did it well. Much more than in most shows, they danced and cavorted while moving their lips. Choreographer Kyle Lang discovered some fine terpsichoreans among them since he was not accorded the luxury of a corps de ballet. The singing from the chorus was consistently strong and the expression enthusiastically engaged.

Perhaps because one expects a less sumptuous sound for operetta, the BLO orchestra satisfied more that it sometimes does in the absorptive Shubert Theater. Alexander Joel kept the ensembles lively through an idiomatic understanding of the morphing impulses of the various dance forms and allowed the orchestral soloists to intertwine quite splendidly with the singers when Lehár’s imaginative orchestration demanded it. A bit more schmaltz might have been nice, but getting modern players to slide is challenging with only a couple of rehearsals.

The solo singing maintained a consistency that must have resulted from good preparation. No opening night jitters were evidenced. In the title role, soprano Erin Wall brought her own spotlight. Her creamy tones and diminuendo to a floated high B in “Vilja” ravished. Roger Honeywell as a rather dour Count Danilo was the evening’s disappointment. Despite well produced and focused tones, he failed to charm or carry. Though he looked fine in the part, and his waltzing was ok, the tessitura seems to lie a bit low for him. How he will be able to manage Don Jose in BLO’s Carmen at the 2,800 seat Opera House next season seems a big question mark. [Ed. Note: Honeywell was apparently suffering from some undisclosed indisposition]

As Camille de Rosillon, John Tessier poured out fine tenor tones, ardent musicality and great chemistry with his Valencienne Chelsea Basler. Their Act II duet came with quiet but intense plangence. Andrew Wilkowske as Baron Zeta and Jesse Blumberg as Njegus displayed good comic sense.

Too bad, though, that the bubbly a seemed to flow mostly at the intermission. Merry Widow hardly stands as a guilty pleasure that needs an additional layer of didactic redeeming social value. Skewer us instead with the Lubitsch touch, and give us more froth, if anything; we can then reflect for ourselves on how the bubbles fell flat as the era ended.

Roger Honeywell as Danilo (T. Charles Erikson photo)
Roger Honeywell as Danilo (T. Charles Erikson photo)

The run continues through next weekend.

See related interview here.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Lee-
    Those were not red ribbons in the men’s WW-1 coats, but red poppies.

    In late 1914, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were once again ripped open as World War One raged through Europe’s heart. Once the conflict was over the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields.
    The significance of the poppy as a lasting memorial symbol to the fallen.

    The running thread throughout the production was WW-1’s approach, but little heed being paid to it in the atmosphere of frivolity and frolicking. But WW-1 did come, and many of those men were lost to the war. A bit of a serious ending to the operetta; but yet not really out of place since the whole production had that tone running through it-and this carried it to its conclusion.

    Comment by Jesse Martin — May 4, 2016 at 8:57 am


    Comment by david moran — May 4, 2016 at 10:54 am

  3. Boston Lyric’s Merry Widow was very nicely cast, looked great and was sung quite well. Crammed into the small pit and conducted by Alexander Joel (Billy’s brother) the orchestra delivered a lush and beautiful rendition of the score. The original plot was never much except as a framework on which to hang some very beautiful music; so the new thread hinting at the coming disaster of WWI and how various characters reacted to it seemed to me to give the piece some profile and relevance. The theater was about 80% full on Wednesday the 4th and the audience reacted favorably except for one man two rows behind me who was outraged and let us all know it during the curtain calls.

    The dialog was a good cut above the translation used for the recent Metropolitan Opera production and most of the jokes were actually funny. When French characters were on stage they spoke and sang in French, Austrians in German (we had supertitles) and there was a goodly amount of English. In short, director Lillian Groag’s “edition” wasn’t your grandmother’s Merry Widow, and I liked it very much for that.

    I think I caught a bit more in terms of foreboding reference to the coming war than my friend Jesse Martin — in particular we were allowed to listen in on a phone call to the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris from Sarajevo. A Pontevedrian there called to report on the arrival of the Archduke Ferdinand; we heard his voice and then a loud bang and the line went dead. The characters on stage didn’t know what that meant, but WE did, of course.

    Comment by William Fregosi — May 6, 2016 at 4:39 pm

  4. Honeywell’s Danilo was not “dour” but heartbroken and furious at her prompt remarriage. We thought that bringing real grief and heartbreak to both couples would be a welcome respite from the usually anodyne grins that generally abound in the piece and would take the place of feeble “love plots” as excuses for pretty music. Even “Vilja” was laden with hurt.

    Comment by Lillian Groag — May 8, 2016 at 11:08 am

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