If there is any work that typifies “Viennese operetta”—waltzes, romantic comedy, catchy tunes and a certain silliness—it is Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. Anna Glawari’s millions (here billions) left to her by her elderly banker husband (who died just one week in) are needed by her native land of Pontevedro to shore up the economy. However the one Pontevedrin she wants is too proud to ask her: Count Danilo’s family had refused to let him marry her when she was a poor farmer’s daughter. He’s now in Paris at the Embassy, and despite drowning his sorrows in champagne and seeking solace in the arms of the accompanying grisettes at Maxim, still has enough self respect not to want to be seen as wooing Anna for her money.
Originally in German, it is one of the few works in the operatic repertory regularly performed in English, the language chosen by Musica Viva in this sparkly, pre-holiday run of performances. Opening night was headlined by soprano Caroline Worra, who, true to the title, nary let a frown wrinkle her brow, and tenor Richard Troxell. Those who follow opera perhaps more than they should will know Troxell from his portrayal of the American naval captain Pinkerton in the moving 1995 film of Madama Butterfly, as well his similarly affecting performances in two other videos that are among the best of their respective operas: as Christian in a 2003 Cyrano de Bergerac and poet Prunier in a Washington National Opera rendition of La Rondine. No longer perhaps in quite the first blush of youth, he brought a certain poignancy, as well the traditional insouciance, to the role of Danilo. Both Worra and Troxell have been on stage countless times, and it showed. Neither, in a production where there lots of kicking up of heels, put a foot wrong.
Their polish, as well as the prevalence of American accents, gave the performance a Broadway vibe. Lehár gave some of the better music to the other couple: the romantic Frenchman Camille de Rossillon and “respectively married” Valencienne. Megan Pachecano, slinky and pouty as Valencienne, seemed to channel Friends’ Courtney Cox. Only Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski started off as European; by Act II, he was solidly French.
The chemistry exhibited in this quartet was duplicated in the alternate cast of Jessica Sandige and (a suave baritone rather than tenor) Jonathan Beyer who made an attractive Anna and Danilo, and Amelia Watkins and Victor Ryan Robertson as Valencienne and Camille.
As the officious yet clueless Baron Zeta (Valencienne’s hapless husband), local baritone Isaac Droscha displayed an expected talent for acting. Zeta, who speaks as much as he sings, in many ways drives the dramatic arc of the plot, and Droscha’s clear stage voice and good sense of timing kept things moving along. In other parts, veteran actor Pichead Amornsomboon provided comic relief (not that much was needed) as the Embassy factotum Njegus, and Henry Ngan delivered on the potential he showed as Goro in last year’s Madama Butterfly: he shows confidence in both voice and stage presence. But some of the best moments were delivered, as is not uncommon in Hong Kong, by the chorus. If a moment can make a show, here it was the entry of the chorus into the famous Act II soprano aria “Vilja”, transforming it from pretty to moving.
Musica Viva outdid themselves with the sets—especially the art deco first act—and the beautiful (if sometimes a bit incongruous) costumes: Pontevedro’s dress sense seems to hail from Central Asia rather than the Balkans, not that it made a whit of difference. The company also took every opportunity the score (and certain strategic interpolations) allowed it to have dancers waltzing about the stage.
The English translation of “The Merry Widow” smooths over some of the Germanic subtleties of the original and allowed the insertion of topical local references into the dialogue, all of which (including both Danilos’ mangled attempts to say “I love you” in Chinese) drew the laughs they were intended to. That this was not a normal night at the opera was made clear when the audience start to clap along with the reprises of the can-can.
They clapped afterwards as well. A lot.