If there's one thing Susan Stroman's new production of The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera House isn't, it's merry. Sometimes frenetic, yes, but merry, no -- and in several ways that composer Franz Léhar might not have condoned.
Having debuted on New Year's Eve with Renée Fleming, Kelli O'Hara, Nathan Gunn and Alek Shrader in the major roles and Andrew Davis conducting, it now features Susan Graham, Andriana Chuchman, Rod Gilfry and Stephen Costello and is being conducted by Fabio Luisi.
Luisi's contributions are one way the overall merriment is compromised. He takes the tempi unusually slowly. At times, this approach is beneficial. During the overture (not the one Léhar crafted for the 1904 premiere), he takes what we think of as "The Merry Widow Waltz" at a tempo quite sinuously enthralling, but elsewhere his decisions are less involving.
Graham is singing beautifully, her sense of control impeccable. The high point of her performance is the second act "Vilja," during which the audience members are practically breathing as one. Her interpretation of widow Hanna Glawari, however, isn't so much the portrait of a widow altogether merry with a fortune that, should she marry the right man, could save her Pontevedrian (Montenegro) homeland as it is the picture of a well-meaning but no-nonsense school mistress. This makes the men constantly flocking around her seem like students vying for good grades.
As Hanna's former -- and future -- lover, Gilfry sounds constrained initially but flourishes the more he courts her. Chuchman and Costello play their slipping-around-on-her-husband scenes nicely and are at their best forms in their early duet. Perhaps the most successful performer, although Alan Opie has blustering fun as the potential cuckold Baron Mirko Zeta, is Carson Elrod as the non-singing (for the most part) go-between Njegus. He's a born comic actor who knows about things like comic timing and double-takes.
The three-act operetta, lifted from Henri Meilhac's L'Attaché de l'Ambassade (in which Danilo is the focal figure) by Victor Léon and Leo Stein, is presented here in Jeremy Sams's version. (The operetta wasn't introduced at the Met until 2000, and Sams, who's worked on it now, has evidently become a Peter Gelb favorite.)
Perhaps The Merry Widow comes across as relatively mirthless because the plot about French and Pontevedrian factions wrangling over the needs of the fatherland (always remember The Merry Widow was an Adolf Hitler favorite) just doesn't tickle contemporary funny bones. But if that's the case, Sams hasn't helped it along. He's hardly outfitted the script with many, or any, genuine laughs.
The sets by Julian Crouch, normally a highly imaginative designer, are standard representations of an embassy ballroom, an outdoor gathering place and Maxim's. On the other hand, William Ivey Long has rustled up scads of sumptuous fin-de-siecle ensembles in his atelier. There's no question that the gown with feathered wrap the merry widow wears at the finale is something a merry widow would wear.
Susan Stroman, making her house debut is at her best when the dancing starts. (This is generally the norm with her.) There is one caveat: When Graham and Gilfry begin to waltz and in the process realize their love for one another, their awkwardness saps the romance from what's supposed to be occurring. They look more like adolescents in their first day at dance class. Maybe that's just a matter of too little rehearsal time and will change at the next performances.
Stroman's other dances -- particularly the opening of acts one and two -- are graceful and lively. And when the action switches to Maxim's and the ladies of can-can erupt, Stroman definitely and at last raises the stakes. In fact, this occurs even before the set for Maxim's is fully in place. Stroman ingeniously uses the can-do can-can women to cover the scene change. It's her directorial peak in a production that simply doesn't have enough of them.