A Buoyant Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Ooh-la-la! As John Oliver mentioned in response to the recent attacks on France's capital, Paris will endure - largely due to its rich culture and passionate people. And the delightful comic operetta by Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, The Merry Widow, celebrates the very best of Paris.

This production, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014, brings along its original star (and Lyric Opera of Chicago "creative consultant") Renée Fleming (through December 3 only - soprano Nicole Cabell takes over the lead Dec 9-13), the design team (including the decadent gowns by celebrated Broadway stalwart William Ivey Long) and Tony award-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman.

While the plot is slight, the music is sumptuous. Fleming floats across the stage as the desired millionaire widow, Hanna Glawari. Men throw themselves at her feet for obvious reasons. But she's not having it - Hanna's eyes are set on Count Danilo Danilovitsch (the matinee-idol charming Thomas Hampson), her former lover. However, while Danilo shows interest in Hanna's advances, he harbors hesitations in re-kindling the romance of someone with such deep pockets.

Meanwhile, two young lovers, Valencienne (a crackling Heidi Stober) and Camille (Michael Spyres) tryst in the background as Valendienne's husband (Patrick Carfizzi) blindly focuses his efforts in ensuring Hanna's love interests remain within the confines of their poverty stricken town - thereby ensuring her vast fortune remains local. Great comedic work by an ensemble steeped in Chicago theatre talent.

By act three, the can-can dancers arrive (razzle-dazzelingly choreographed by Stroman) and things whirl into a hilarious and colorful series of antics and prat falls. Stober gains a delightful scene-stealing moment as she lets loose amongst the high-kicking can-can ladies. But rest assured, the lovers who were meant to be, are. Pop the champagne!

This was my first time seeing Fleming in person. I've admired her vocal work through her Grammy-winning albums, and have deeply appreciated all the good work she's done to make opera accessible to a new generation. Truly important and inspiring stuff. I just wish her efforts in this production made such an impression. Fleming's no doubt a glowing figure on a stage, but here, she oddly fades into the background, perhaps due to the score settling uncomfortably in her lower range. However, the biggest surprise is Fleming's resistance in tapping into Hanna's sparkling wryness -- an attitude I'd assumed she'd revel in. Rather, Fleming's Hannah comes across a grounded, leaden creature, who only comes to life in a few brief and thrilling moments (including a stunning "Vilja" in the second act).

That said, the evening still maintained its buoyancy, and the crowd left the Lyric on a high note.

"The Merry Widow" plays through December 13 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. More info here >