, January 2010
This is an affectionate and old-fashioned staging of Franz Lehár’s greatest hit, yet it is not your grandfather’s Lustige Witwe. In the 2001–02 season, San Francisco Opera’s longtime general director, Lofti Mansouri, decided to take his leave of the company not with parading elephants or the collapse of Valhalla, but with a more gemütlich spectacle. For the occasion, he hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein to prepare a new English-language libretto, based essentially on the French rather than German version of the operetta (act III takes place at Maxim’s, not Hannah’s—or, in this version, Anna’s—garden). He interpolated into the score some “found” objects, too: embassy secretary Njegus’s aria “Quite Parisienne” (as it’s given in English), which Lehár added after the premiere but most producers elect to cut, and a 10-minute third-act ballet sequence cobbled together from bits of other Lehár scores. Yet even as Mansouri giveth, he taketh away; there’s no overture. But he did hire as the two romantic leads a pair of singers whose vocal equipment transcends the needs of operetta: Yvonne Kenny and Bo Skovhus.
Wasserstein’s dialogue, despite the occasional reference to mutual funds and such, is not really anachronistic; the references, though aimed at a contemporary audience, work within the context of Paris a century ago. As you might expect from the author of The Heidi Chronicles, however, the proto-feminist heroine now has a bit more business savvy and ambition than in the original. Not enough to dismay the grizzled male-chauvinist pigs among us, though. Michael Yeargan’s lovely fin-de-siècle sets and Thierry Bosquet’s colorful, quasi-Ballets Russes costumes for the second act surely inspire a great deal of good will and affection among viewers who resist the notion of mildly updated dialogue and a bit of score-tinkering; this is, at heart, a very traditional production.
It’s also full of broad, stagey acting, which is inevitable in live performance at the big War Memorial Opera House, but rather off-putting on the home screen. (Mansouri is the stage director.) Skovhus has the wit and flair to pull this sort of thing off, and the pert Angelika Kirchslager in the soubrette role of Valencienne is compulsively watchable, but Kenny can’t help seeming a bit imperious and distant; her Widow doesn’t even register Danilo’s repudiation at the end of act II.
The singing, though, is exceptionable. Indeed, Skovhus and Kirchschlager are especially splendid, their training and experience leavened with the right amount of vocal verve. Kenny is quite good, too, as long as you don’t mind her slightly dark and heavy grand-opera voice applied to operetta; still, she’s basically idiomatic, and who can complain about her level of artistry lavished on this role? The singers in the smaller parts seem more comfortable with an operetta approach—not that they’re sloppy or underpowered, but their voices and delivery are more character-oriented. Conductor Erich Kunzel may not impart to the orchestra the last degree of schmaltz, but his leadership does result in the requisite sparkle; it’s far better than in his mundane early pops recordings in Cincinnati.
Video director Gary Halvorson knows where to point the cameras and when shots need to be long, medium, or close—a balance that seems to elude many TV directors. In Blu-ray, the colors are especially gorgeous in the act II garden scene; the aspect ratio is the now-standard 16:9, and the audio options are the usual PCM 2.0 and DTS-HD surround. There are subtitles in French, German, and Spanish—but not English, and on a very few occasions they might have been beneficial. Not that the foreign artists’ spoken English is ever hard to understand, but sung English by its very nature sometimes turns to mush. The extras are the usual 20-minute documentary, worth looking at once, and Opus Arte’s characteristically helpful illustrated synopsis. The multilingual booklet also contains a good analysis by Camille Crittenden of the roles of the female characters in this operetta.
Christopher Williams used to be this magazine’s resident Lehár enthusiast, and the last time he had anything to say about Lustige Witwe videos (Fanfare 32: 4, nearly two years ago), he preferred the Arthaus DVD from Zurich Opera with Dagmar Schellenberger and Rodney Gilfrey, Franz Welser-Möst conducting—a wholly traditional, echt-Viennese production (in German). And if you’re looking for Die Lustige Witwe, that’s a fine first choice. But if you want The Merry Widow, and don’t mind a few little tweaks to the libretto and score, this San Francisco production is very attractive.