Review: Calgary Opera’s The Merry Widow a charming, playful antidote to winter

Kenneth DeLong  •  Calgary Herald
Publishing date:

Jan 31, 2022  •  January 31, 2022

Following nearly two years of pandemic-induced silence, Calgary Opera has re-emerged with a sparkling production of Lehar’s evergreen operetta The Merry Widow. For the company, the happiness at once again being able to mount a live production, and for the audience to be able to attend a performance was palpable at the conclusion of opening night: the prolonged applause was nearly as much for being together as an appreciation for the enjoyable performance.
Somewhat unusual in today’s operatic world, the operetta was given “straight”: no updating of location or period, no fancy gimmicks, no intellectual posturing — just the operetta as written. Abounding in melody, The Merry Widow piles one impressive number upon another, climaxing in the famous Vilja Lied and later in the still more famous Merry Widow Waltz.

Sung in the witty, clever recent English translation by Jeremy Sams (also used in the recent Met production), the production retains the visual charm of the Belle Epoque but with dialogue and song texts suitable for today’s sensibility.

The sets and costumes come from Utah Opera and breathe the spirit of the story’s Parisian setting from roughly a century ago, a glittering time for the French capital. With a large chorus, complete with dancing grisettes, excellent supporting music provided by the Calgary Philharmonic, and capable singing throughout, the production itself is the most compelling reason to take in this show.

Dancing is a crucial component of period operetta, and nowhere more so than in this operetta, which contains not only numerous waltzes but also faux-Slavic folk dances and, especially, cabaret-style dances associated with the Moulin Rouge — or, in this case, the cafe Chez Maxim. All these dances were idiomatically and impressively rendered by corps de ballet consisting of eight dancers with dance choreography by Yukichi Hattori. Folded into all this was a good deal of dancing by the Calgary Opera Chorus, which acquitted itself exceptionally well vocally and in the dancing. Both the folk dances and the cabaret numbers were excellent, capturing the spirit of the dramatic moment.

Canadian conductor Tania Miller led the performance with a sure hand, steering a clean line between sentiment and sentimentality. Under her leadership, the CPO sounded refined or peppy as the music requires, with the singers never overpowered. The stage action by Omer Ben Seadia was clever and included many amusing touches and happily without recourse to gratuitous slapstick. Together with an especially fine concluding act, there was much to enjoy in the comedy of the pavilion scene and the finale of act one.

The cast was headed by Canadian soprano Aviva Fortunata, last heard in Calgary in the title role in Norma. Vocally she brought to the title role of The Merry Widow the presence and vividness of a lead soprano, most particularly in her Vilja Lied in the second act, the vocal highlight of the production. Throughout, there was excellent chemistry between her and Count Danilo, the man she is determined to have say to her the three magic words necessary for marriage. Comfortable in a comic role, she presented a slightly more earthy version of The Merry Widow than one customarily encounters, a reminder that the Widow has been “of the nobility” for only a very short time.

The production’s Danilo is Calgary native Andrew Love, familiar to Calgarians during his time with the McPhee Artist Development program and in his previous performances with the company in Everest and the previous production of Filumena. Love typically sings both opera and Broadway, and his high baritone was just right for the role, as was his comic timing.

One of the most difficult roles to cast well is that of Camille de Rosillon. Fortunately, the production features Colin Ainsworth in this role, surely one of Canada’s finest lyric tenors. In all the various scenes with Valencienne, and especially the pavilion scene, Ainsworth provided all the eloquent tenor lyricism one could wish. His romantic partner Jacqueline Woodley matched him very well in both vocal and dramatic terms, even to the can-can in the final act.

Hugh Russell milked his comic role as Baron Zeta and was well supported by his sidekick Devon Dubnyk as Njegus who has some of the best lines in the show. The other supporting cast members all contributed appropriately to the fun and merriment in what was a well-balanced treatment of the comic action.

Anyone looking for an escape from a Calgary winter, or the blues brought on by the continuing battle with COVID-19, will find smiles, warm sentiment, and great music in this fine production of The Merry Widow.

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