Esther Nelson, artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera, announced to the opening night audience at “The Merry Widow” what probably most of them already knew: that after 18 years, this would be the last BLO production at the Shubert Theatre. The 2016-'17 BLO season will open with Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Opera House — the first actual opera there in some three decades. Three other productions will be at Paramount, the Cutler Majestic Theatre and John Hancock Hall. At her mention of the Opera House, the audience burst into applause — no more cramped stage, cramped seats, cramped aisles, cramped lobby or dead acoustics. But as Nelson knows all too well, a peripatetic opera season is not the solution to a major Boston problem: the absence of a permanent and adequate venue for opera. “We’ll be working on it,” she said with determination as she strode down the aisle to her seat.
Unfortunately, it’s not the only thing BLO needs to work on. Somehow, in its misguided search for greater relevance, mainly through updating the original story, the company managed to get the tone of every one of this season’s productions wrong. Puccini’s “La Bohème” is one of opera’s most irresistible and popular romances. But recontextualizing the action to the 1968 student riots in Paris buried the sentimental love story in a grim political environment that betrayed Puccini’s music.
The Boston premiere of Philip Glass’s operatic version of Kafka’s darkest and starkest story, "In the Penal Colony," made good use of the underused Cyclorama building at the Boston Center for the Arts, but the added layer of expressionistic choreography turned Kafka’s appalling understatement into melodrama. And updating Massenet’s "Werther" from the 18th century of Goethe’s novel to the early 20th century — a time just after when, for example, the title character in Charpentier’s Louise is breaking loose from her parents’ bourgeois restrictions — compromised a story about a young woman meekly obeying a deathbed promise to her mother to marry the wrong man, a story that makes far more emotional sense in the earlier century Massenet intended.
Now, stage director Lillian Groag’s search for relevance and seriousness has taken the fizz out of “The Merry Widow,” Franz Lehár’s ebullient and tunefully nostalgic operetta (composed in 1905). The plot concerns the desperate government of Pontevedro trying to force the playboy Count Danilo to marry the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari, his former lover, in order to keep her money in the country. Groag’s rewritten libretto pushes the action closer to the brink of World War I. The number usually sung in English as “Girls, girls, girls” is here translated to “War, war, war.” At the very end, the widow and her glamorous paramour run off to Boston to open a pub (not in the original libretto!), leaving a group of soldiers in uniform humming the famous “Merry Widow Waltz” as the curtain very slowly descends. So the only touching moment in the entire production has virtually nothing to do with the main characters.
There are two great films based on Lehár’s masterpiece: a bitterly satirical silent film directed by Erich von Stroheim in 1925, when the world was still reeling from the devastation of the Great War; and a sublimely witty 1934 musical directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier as the sophisticated lovers, with English lyrics by Rodgers and Hart. Lubitsch’s version of the famous waltz is one of the most beloved and thrilling musical sequences in film.
In both of these mesmerizing and stylish films, however different from one another, character remains at the center. But BLO’s lovers are neither moving nor charismatic. All we get are stock, generic figures from a director more interested in her concept than in her characters. Interchangeable actors, some with shockingly inadequate diction, line up parallel to the edge of the stage and archly declaim or ham up their lines. The dramaturgy is strictly high school and catastrophic for a musical work with so much (way too much!) spoken dialogue. One of the inspired qualities in the Lubitsch film is the condensing of the story line, and of course the dialogue sparkles and is full of feeling.
In a later and lesser 1952 Technicolor movie version, even such lame actors as Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas at least sweep you away as they waltz around a hotel room.
Soprano Erin Wall and tenor Roger Honeywell have learned all their steps, but their dance of love has no sweep, no passion, no chemistry. Where’s George Balanchine — or even Arthur Murray — when you need him?
Equally frustrating, most of the singing is a disappointment. Honeywell is so vocally underpowered he’s hard to hear. Wall excels in her loud outbursts, but her quieter singing, as in Lehár’s “Vilja” (a haunting ballad about a wood nymph), lacks the effortless legato lyricism this song requires. Another of the director’s bright ideas was to make the widow an American, a kind of Unsinkable Molly Brown, which of course coarsens Wall’s performance, turning one kind of cliché into a worse one. Besides, what’s an all-American girl like Hanna doing singing a Black Forest folk song about a woodland spirit?
The most refined singing is by tenor John Tessier, as the French military attaché Camille de Rosillon who is in love with the ambassador’s wife Valencienne (soprano Chelsea Basler). These roles were considerably beefed up, if not exactly fleshed out, but the extended dialogue didn’t make these figures more compelling.
Something’s wrong when the liveliest performance in an operetta comes from an actor — here, Alex Portenko, originally from Uzbekistan, in the non-singing role of the hero’s orderly Kivowitz. His hilarious imitation of a submarine is one of the productions few high points.
The dialogue and lyrics are delivered, the director tells us, in “a multi-language attempt to reflect the principal countries involved in WWI,” (including, the program booklet indicates, Serbian). Except for that last tableau, the World War references seem tepid and timid. There’s a long-bearded anarchist type wandering onstage and off carrying an “End of the World” placard. The supertitles flash quotations from Shaw, Wilde, Nietzsche and Freud. But bad jokes far outweigh any good ones.
“I thought you went down with the Titanic.”
“I swam to shore. I have an excellent breast stroke.”
“I live like a monk.”
And the inevitable groaner: “Let’s make Pontevedro great again!”
The later life of the Lehár score actually took on some powerful political overtones. In his Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”) from 1937, Shostakovich repeats the catchy tune of “We're Going to Maxim’s” with savage relentlessness for nearly ten minutes (beginning at just over seven minutes into the first movement, then returning again later) to suggest the horror of the Nazi invasion.
That same tune recurs in the “Interrupted Intermezzo” of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which some people consider the composer’s parody of Shostakovich. Alfred Hitchcock uses a minor-key version of “The Merry Widow Waltz” to sinister effect during the titles of “Shadow of a Doubt” in which Joseph Cotton plays Uncle Charlie, “the Merry Widow Murderer.” Too bad the political tincture added to this BLO production is so half-hearted. And so leaden.
At least things perk up a little in the last act with a lively can-can at Maxim’s — choreography by Kyle Lang. Here as elsewhere, the chorus and dancers have more energy than the soloists.
Just to give you a taste of that can-can number, I can’t resist including another link to that 1952 movie, which includes a rare screen appearance by the scintillating Broadway star Gwen Verdon.
My most unreserved applause goes to British conductor Alexander Joel, who actually studied conducting in Vienna, and who captured Lehár’s true Viennese lilt (he’s evidently Billy Joel’s half-brother). This was Joel’s North American debut. If there was anything at all stylish about this production, it was coming from the orchestra pit.
I don’t want the Boston Lyric Opera to fail. And I want Boston to have a facility — like a refurbished Colonial Theatre?—where opera can thrive. But the best way BLO can make a case for a better venue, to make itself indispensable, is to have better, smarter productions. A friend of mine used to say: “When all else fails, try quality.”
Remaining performances of “The Merry Widow” continue at the Shubert Theatre through May 8. For more information, visit the Boston Lyric Opera’s website.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the centuries in which BLO’s “La Bohème” and “Werther” were set. “La Bohème” was not set during the Spanish Civil War and “Werther” was not set during the late 19th century. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on May 03, 2016.