"Merry Widow" come in all sizes and shapes, and I have tried as many of them as my time and strength would allow. Some have been simple, some pretentious, all beautiful in their varied ways. The one currently visiting town from New York (with which I had an all-too-brief encounter yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center) certainly ranks among the most memorable.
A production of Franz Lehar's operetta doesn't have to be as lavish as the one offered by the New York City Opera (with a different cast from the charity gala starring Beverly Sills presented earlier), but the elaborate care devoted to scenery, costumes and choreography enhances tremendously this simple, straightforward tale of amorous intrigue, diplomatic chicanery and pure decadence in fin-de-siecle Paris.
The tunes are, of course, the most important element; they are so abundant and so glorious that any production that does them justice will send the audience away humming - perhaps nursing hands blistered from excessive clapping. I recall fondly, for example, a production by the Washington Civic Opera that did just that, although the scenery was almost nonexistent, because the voices and the orchestra were good.
If you look closely at its neighbor from Lincoln Center, the City Opera has to be considered a small or at best a medium-sized company, but this production, originated for the San Diego Opera by Tito Capobianco, is unquestionably major-league - considerably more lavish, for example, than the two D'Oyly Carte productions ('Mikado" and 'Princess Ida") that I managed to catch during their stay here.
The script for this production has been considerably streamlined, leaving out a lot of subplot complications which can be very funny, presumably to make time for some additional music from Lehar's "Giuditta" which was fitted smoothly into the show's loose, accommodating structure. The translation of the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick is brilliant - Titerate and singable, catching perfectly the spirit of the German original and sometimes improving on it.
These lyrics came across the footlights with exceptional clarity and superb tone in the voices of Howard Hensel (Danilo) and Henry Price (Rosillon), a bit more unevenly but still impressively from Sharon Daniels in the title role. True to the implications of his name, conductor Lloyd Walser showed charmingly that he knows just what to do with a waltz.