October: Baseball’s world series time and the air seems to be a swirling mass of statistics. So let’s gather up some for Brott Opera’s production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow which lit up First Ontario Concert Hall’s stage last Thursday night.
Reduced orchestration by Richard Balcombe, meaning Boris Brott had a bare bones orchestra of 23 to fill the hall with Lehar’s charming music. A cast of just 7 singers for everything – arias, choruses, dialogue, lavish embassy balls – the lot. Scenery by Jacqui Templeton Muir’s amazing paintings, drawn and projected with artistic excellence and tech cunning. Add a few chairs, tables, a potted plant or two and a couch, all whisked on, off and about by the renowned Men In Black stage hands. And there you have it. The barest of bones.
So what happened?
The seven member cast came on and simply exploded right off the stage and into the hearts and ears of the audience.David Curry, a full strength vindaloo if ever I’ve tasted one, was a dashing Count Danilo, as romantic and handsome a lead as ever trod the boards. He could have rolled up the stage and taken it home with him. He sang, narrated over the edited bits, danced and acted as if his life depended on it. Miriam Khalil was a gorgeous Hanna, a cool but seethingly passionate Merry Widow, filthy rich and a target of hysterical courting by the entire Parisian elite, represented by the antic Raoul De St. Brioche (Bud Roach) and Vicomte Cascada (Jamal Al Titi). They sang and cavorted and filled the stage with such effect that one had to consciously ignore their inane brilliance to concentrate on Kahlil’s lovely performance in her signature aria VIlja.
And then we have the man who almost stole the entire show, Baron Zeta. The veteran of nine seasons with the New York Metropolitan Opera and recently retired Professor of song at University of Montreal, John Fanning. Vocally and comedically brilliant as the Pontevedran ambassador determined that the Merry Widow’s wealth stays in his impoverished country by marrying a Pontevedran (Danilo) “assisted” by his wife Valencienne (Daniela Agostino) and her lover (of whom her husband, Baron Zeta, is blissfully unaware) Camille Rosillon (Matt Chittick) who both shone in what was a simply scintillating cast. I applaud the singing but make not comment on the actual voices. They were amplified which makes it impossible to judge them unless recording studio excellence prevails.
All this was schemed out and directed by Jessie Derventzis who’s creativity multiplied everything into being twice the sum of its parts and thus allowing her talented cast to bewitch us into deeply caring about them. This is the secret of the successful stage.
How different from the second last time I was at The Merry Widow. It was at the Met in New York. Danilo was Placido Domingo, Hanna was Frederica von Stade, who, after a long and brilliant career, was saying farewell to the Met with this little lollipop. Domingo was deep in negotiations to conduct a Met production of Ballo in Maschera, which never happened. The whole lavish business was phoned in from somewhere north of Pluto. I would be embarrassed saying this if it hadn’t happened so often in my career.
I know many, many people who weren’t there but would have revelled in last Thursday’s wonderful night of operetta. That, to me, is the only mystery.
-Hugh Fraser, Former Hamilton Spectator Music Critic