A VIBRANT MERRY WIDOW OPENS VANCOUVER OPERA’S 2018-2019 SEASON

Lehár, THE MERRY WIDOW: Richard Suart (Baron Mirko Zeta), Sasha Djihanian (Valencienne), John Tessier (Camille de Rosillon), Lucia Cesaroni (Hanna Glawari), John Cudia (Count Danilo Danilovich). Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Ward Stare (conductor), Vancouver Opera Chorus, Kinza Tyrrell (director), Kelly Robinson (stage director), Joshua Beamish (choreographer), Michael Yeargan (scenic designer), Susan Memmott-Allred (costume designer), Gerald King (lighting designer), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, October 20, 2018.

 All photos by Tim Matheson

All photos by Tim Matheson

Rather than starting the season with a dramatic opera drawn from the classic repertoire, Vancouver Opera sent things off with Lehár’s frothier operetta The Merry Widow, challenging the company to display their talents in creating charm, humour, and buoyant energy in a setting that always flirts with lavish indulgence. Young maestro Wade Stare did an admirable job at finding freshness and transparency in the score, while the choreography was consistently engaging. The naturalness of the acting and the uncluttered stage movement always kept the viewer focused on the evolving relationships between the characters. Some issues of vocal matching and balance aside, the two principal couples brought both luster and chemistry to the proceedings: soprano Lucia Cesaroni and tenor John Cudia inhabited their lead roles with a natural enthusiasm, nicely complemented by the pairing of soprano Sasha Djihanian with tenor John Tessier. Richard Suart was excellent as the Baron.

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Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow has ranked among the world’s most beloved operettas since its first performance in 1905. It revitalized the genre when it was in danger of becoming moribund following the deaths of Franz von Suppé and Johann Strauss II at the end of the 19th century. It has remained a staple of major opera companies to the present. One of the ingredients of The Merry Widow’s success is the artless simplicity of the story: indeed, this lightweight tale of rival suitors from Paris and Pontevedro (a fictitious Balkan state) seeking the hand of the wealthy and widowed Hanna Glawari is little more than a pretext for Lehar’s irresistible tunes and ravishing orchestration. Many contemporary productions have foundered by burdening the story with political and cultural subtexts that its slender plot is unable to support. Fortunately, stage director Kelly Robinson kept this production faithful to the spirit of Lehár’s masterpiece. With stunning period costumes and lavish sets that provoked spontaneous applause at the start of each act, this production was quite gorgeous to behold.

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The central roles of Hanna and Danilo require a combination of good looks, charismatic stage presence, and unaffected charm, in addition to vocal prowess. Lucia Cesaroni and John Cudia proved to be an attractive and engaging leading couple, moving about the stage effortlessly and developing genuine chemistry over the course of the operetta’s three acts. Cesaroni’s agile, resonant voice coped very well with the acoustics of the theatre, and only in the uppermost register was there a hint of unsteadiness in her vibrato. Otherwise, her enunciation was clear and her feeling for the Viennese operetta idiom was impeccable. Cudia has a strong stage presence and, vocally, possesses an appealing timbre and a fine sense of rhythm and style. Nonetheless, his singing had less power and projection. The disparity in vocal strength between Hanna and Danilo was sometimes a handicap in their duets, particularly at the end of the Act II but, to his credit, Maestro Stare kept the orchestra carefully reined in during Cudia’s arias.

The secondary couple, Valencienne and Camille, was better matched in volume, though Sasha Djihanian’s lush soprano voice has noticeably wider vibrato than John Tessier’s clear and focused lyric tenor voice – an interesting combination nonetheless. Tessier’s ringing, unforced high notes proved to be an asset in the quasi-Wagnerian vocal writing of ‘Wie eine Rosenknospe’ and ‘Sieh dort den kleinen Pavillon,’ while Djihanian’s agility and brilliance were heard to great effect in the more boisterous numbers at the end of Act II and beginning of Act III.

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The role of Valencienne’s husband, Baron Mirko Zeta, was performed by English singer and actor Richard Suart, who deserves special praise for his marvelously precise and robust speaking voice. Both his singing and acting were consistently fine, and his comedic timing was especially admirable. It was an interesting casting choice to assign the role of the comic servant Njegus to Canadian television and theatre actress Sarah Afful. As this character is often portrayed as simple-minded and coarse, it was refreshing to see Afful emphasize his artful wit and resourcefulness.

36-year old maestro Wade Stare is hardly a stranger to The Merry Widow, debuting with the Metropolitan Opera in nine performances of the operetta last December. His familiarity showed: the Vancouver Opera Orchestra gave a reading that was always fresh in feeling and moved fluently. Many details of orchestration that are often obscured were brought out, and the balance between voices and orchestra was exceptionally good in both solo/ensemble numbers and in the big choruses.

The choreography was enjoyable throughout: the national dances in Act II came across as authentically folksy, and there was an infectious energy to the dances of the grisettes in Act III (complete with drag queens and can-can from Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers). It was delightful as well to see the principal singers participating in the dancing – something that rarely happens in Grand Opera. The men’s ensemble ‘Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist Schwer’ was so amusingly presented that it elicited an encore from the audience. It is worth pointing out the success of one innovation: to have the arias sung in the original German while the dialogue was spoken in English translation. For those who are intimately familiar with this operetta, the German aria texts are an inseparable part of the music; nonetheless, it would be pedantic to insist on burdening the audience with long stretches of foreign-language dialogue. The compromise worked brilliantly, and the transitions between the two languages were not in the least jarring.

So, an evening of radiant charm and vitality to begin Vancouver Opera’s 2018-2019 journey: it augurs well for the season to come.

© Nicolas Krusek 2018

THE OPERA EXPERIENCE