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Author: Kelly Dean Hansen

DAILY CAMERA: Review: Eklund Opera’s ‘Merry Widow’ among CU’s finest productions

It was easy to be skeptical when the University of Colorado’s Eklund Opera Program announced that its fall production would be yet another Viennese operetta following last year’s memorable “Die Fledermaus.” After all, this is a fairly obscure genre in the larger world of opera.

But program/stage director Leigh Holman and music director Nicholas Carthy have always planned their repertoire around their current student personnel, a strategy that has proved wise and successful. And Franz Léhar’s “The Merry Widow” (“Die lustige Witwe”) is many things that “Die Fledermaus” (which preceded it by 30 years) is not.

Where the earlier Johann Strauss work is mostly lightness, revenge pranks, and champagne, the 1905 “Widow” is a tender love story with real stakes for a small country — a human comedy in every way. Probably the closest point of contact to “Die Fledermaus” is a subplot involving a flirtatious, quasi-adulterous relationship that ultimately goes nowhere.

Eklund’s production opens tonight at Macky Auditorium with repeat performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The Saturday cast is different, as usual. Full dress rehearsals Tuesday and Wednesday indicated that this will be one of CU’s best ever productions. Holman and Carthy keep raising their own bar, but they outdo themselves here in ways patrons should expect from them.

For starters, “Widow” is a show that has suffered from serious adaptation decay, even in Léhar’s lifetime. In English-speaking countries, performances of the original libretto are uncommon, much less with the sung texts in the original German language. Unlike in “Fledermaus,” CU opted to retain the German lyrics, with their exquisite meters and rhymes that perfectly fit Léhar’s immortal melodies. Even professional American companies (including the Met) rarely do that. The production is authentic in other unusual ways too, including the settings and plots.

The spoken dialogue is in English (delivered crisply and with great exuberance), but the linguistic transitions are seamless, as they were in last spring’s “Magic Flute.” The Act I embassy set is lavish, the Act II outdoor set is gorgeous, and the Act III recreation of Maxim’s in Paris is worth all of its 30 minutes.

The plot revolves around the French embassy of a nearly bankrupt Balkan country (called “Pontevedro” — the model was the very real country of Montenegro). A Pontevedrian widow has become exceedingly wealthy upon her aged husband’s demise, and when she comes to Paris, it is up to the ambassador to keep those millions in Pontevedro — under no circumstances can she marry a Parisian.

The central five characters are sung and acted with excellence in both casts. The Saturday cast gives opportunities to singers who have done smaller parts in the past, while the Friday/Sunday leads generally have more experience.

The title role, Hanna Glawari, is the most demanding, and it is central to the operetta’s success. In the Saturday cast, soprano Anna Whiteway — who did play the large role of Pamina in “Magic Flute” — really makes her mark here, delivering a genuinely tender portrayal of the widow. Her rendition of the famous “Vilja song” in Act II is crystalline in its beauty. As her former lover and current Pontevedrian hope Count Danilo, tenor Bryce Bartu makes a strong impact in his first major role.

Also given her first leading role is soprano Paige Sentianin as Valencienne, the ambassador’s young, flirtatious and adorable wife. After making an excellent, but brief impact as Papagena in “Magic Flute,” Sentianin shines here with a coquettish vivacity both in her acting and singing.

The Friday/Sunday cast uses more seasoned CU veterans in these three roles. Neila Getz was an imposing, forceful Rosalinda in “Fledermaus” and a menacing Queen of the Night in “Magic Flute.” Her Hanna is perhaps more austere and melancholy than Whiteway’s, but Getz’s powerful voice is again in excellent form. Joshua DeVane — a baritone whose range allows him to venture into tenor territory — adds to his series of triumphant portrayals with a very human Danilo. Mary Kettlewell’s Rosalinda was sassy, and her Valencienne here is no less delicious. Tenor Jacob Baker heroically takes on the demandingly high role of Camille de Rosillon in both casts. Rosillon is in love with Valencienne (whose resistance is tepid at best) and also Danilo’s unwilling rival for Hanna’s affections (it makes sense in context). Baker’s top range is on brilliant display in his Act II duet with Sentianin and Kettlewell.

The ambassador, Baron Zeta, is a fine role, even though his singing is limited, and the character is played with gusto by Alex King on Saturday and Daniel Thompson (another returning favorite) in the Friday/Sunday cast.

The supporting cast is superb. Hanna’s two French suitors (Erik Erlandson and Lane Melott Friday and Sunday; Steven Vinolas and Patrick Bessenbacher Saturday) provide terrific comic relief. They are joined by three Pontevedrian officials (Zachary Bryant, Karl Allen and Sklyer Schlenker) — two of whose wives have had dalliances with the Frenchman — along with Danilo and Zeta for the operetta’s most rousing number, the Act II March-Septet (with typical sentiments about the confusing nature of women).

The six dancing “Grisettes” at Maxim’s are also magnificent. And Grant Bowman deserves mention for his uproarious performance in the vital non-singing role of Njegus, secretary to the ambassador.

Carthy’s orchestra is, as usual, phenomenal. They perform the rarely-used overture (which Léhar composed for the 400th performance) under a pantomime revealing the backstory of Hanna and Danilo.