Franz Lehár's most famous operetta maintains its grasp on the repertoire nearly a century after its première. Nevertheless, there have been almost as many attempts to "improve" the work – especially in English-speaking countries – as there have been different productions of it. This English-language production of The Merry Widow was taped live on December 8, 2001 in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Christopher Hassall's Gilbert-and-Sullivanish English translation of the original German lyrics is used here, but this time around, we are given a new book by Wendy Wasserstein (The Wendy Chronicles). Wasserstein tones down the cozy Viennese romance and brings the Widow closer to Broadway, but without changing the outlines of the plot. It's a difficult task, and she does it well, but she doesn't avoid some traps. She inserts topical jokes about California's energy woes, questionable accents (why does Madame Bogdanovitch sound like Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday ?), and jokes that were familiar the first time they were told in the Catskills. Like revision authors before her, Wasserstein can't hide the fact that The Merry Widow has 45 minutes of plot padded to three times its length, and that the padding can be clumsy and unconvincing.
That hasn't kept most of us from loving the music, however. This production offers us some novelties in that department as well, the two most notable of them in Act Three. That act opens with a ten-minute ballet cobbled together from other Lehár works. Following that, we get a usually omitted song ("Quite Parisian") for Njegus. This new material works well on stage, but I doubt that it would have been welcome if this were an audio-only release.
Lofti Mansouri's production – his last before retirement from the San Francisco Opera – is crammed with characters, costumes, and business of one sort of another. In spite of how busy it is, it's a visual delight, a perfect holiday gift for the San Franciscans, and now for us.
The cast is uniformly excellent. This was Kenny's first Merry Widow. Her voice is weightier than that of most Annas – she sounds ready for Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs! Some of her high notes are strained, but that's life. One thing seems clear: she's a little too old for Bo Skovhus's boyishly irresponsible Danilo! He's charming in the role, but it will be another ten years before he is totally right for it. As the second pair of lovers, the adorable Kirchschlager and Turay look (and sound) absolutely right. The many small roles are done with great personality and character by the company members. Kunzel's conducting is appropriately Viennese, but not without a touch of Broadway pizzazz.
The DVD looks and sounds as attractive as the production. There are two bonuses: a ten-minute synopsis, and an interesting twenty-minute collection of "impressions" by Kenny, Skovhus, Kirchschlager, Turay, and Mansouri.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle