by James Foritano
There is an inspired moment, one could hardly call it a scene, in the Boston Lyric Opera’s current production on the Shubert Theater’s Stage, when an official messenger at the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris describes with his full body, accompanied by lush sound effects, his interpretation of a submarine rising, raising its periscope, launching a torpedo and diving.
The audience howls while the diplomats are alternately horrified, contemptuous and ultimately, uncomprehending.
When Vienna’s storied Theater an der Wien launched composer Franz Lehar’s operetta, “The Merry Widow” (Die lustige Witwe), in 1905, it provoked hilarity enough to spread its reputation to every European capital and beyond.
What exactly the audiences were laughing at, since the story in this famed operetta’s long history has been altered and up-dated many times, we’ll never know.
Alas, the BLO’s present production, in this reviewer’s opinion, throws some light — but ultimately too little — on the sources of “The Merry Widow’s” enduring appeal.
The curtain rises on the embassy of a fictional Eastern European country in Belle Epoque Paris. Small, and, not incidentally, impoverished, Pontevedro, has commanded its diplomats to prevent the marriage of a fabulously wealthy American widow, Hannah Glawari, to anyone but their own fabulously impoverished, fabulously dissipated Count Danilo.
Since the conventions of operetta permit spoken lines and light, catchy songs but never unhappy endings, the better selves of this American/Pontevedrian duo do eventually get hitched — saving, for the moment, themselves and Pontevedro, but not, unfortunately, Europe.
Quoting from the program, the scene of this updated version of “The Merry Widow” takes place on “New Year’s Eve, 1913. Europe feverishly dances on the edge…”
Historically speaking this is nothing less than plain fact, but theatrically it’s a long ‘New Years Eve’ to sit and watch a very low-grade ‘fever’ skim along on an ‘edge’ that barely nicks the skin of a pack of clueless ‘blue bloods.’ The comedy, too wedded to sight gags and double takes, rarely touches its sad center, and the ‘frenzy’ rarely gives us a peek at the desperation below.
The eyelid of denial rises, chillingly, though unwillingly, when a desperate diplomatic messenger, elevating his pantomime to Chaplinesque levels, conjures a killer submarine in the very ballroom of the Pontevedrian Embassy!
There should have been more moments of this kind of tension, at once daffy and deadly, to evoke the ‘fever-pitch’ denial that the BLO’s production purports to resurrect dramatically. Instead, the messengers who repeatedly come freighted with news of approaching doom seem merely hapless, their auditors witless.
Songs help to hold up the necessary tension when Erin Wall’s ‘Hannah’ and Roger Honeywell’s ‘Count Danilo’ voice the mistrust between the sexes in melodies that stunningly intermingle innocence and soulful yearning with stubborn pride and deception.
Ditto with the duets of that mirroring pair of lovers/flirts ‘Valencienne’ and ‘Vicomte Camille.’ In these duets John Tessier and Chelsea Basler inhabit their characters with a vocal complexity in which love experiences its counterpart, flirtation and vice-versa for uncomfortable, bittersweet moments.
It helps too that the singers have voices that reach out to us while lovers’ spoken innuendos, not to mention badinage in a medley of European languages, is not always ‘speaking-clear’ and only sometimes audible.Would that the whole of this production limped less and skipped more consistently to the mad beat of a whole world, of countless lovers wagering all or nothing. Then we might better understand the laughter of those prescient Viennese.
(Boston Lyric Opera’s presentation of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” continues through May 8; shows take place Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, visit http://blo.org/the-merry-widow/.)