Must all performances of The Merry Widow, Franz Lehár’s lighthearted operetta of 1905, be set in Paris? With Palm Beach now an international cultural center in its own right, the question occurred naturally enough as Palm Beach Opera concluded its sixtieth season with a work not seen here since 2003.
In this production, Palm Beach’s local company retained the work’s Parisian milieu and fin-de-siècle idiom, with elegant scenery by Michael Yeargan and gorgeous period costumes from Santa Fe Opera’s costume shop. The widow of the operetta’s title, Hanna Glawari, has arrived in Paris from the fictional cash-strapped country of Pontevedro, loosely based on Montenegro. Government agents from her home country try to make sure she does not marry a foreigner (and thus take her money out of the country), which would send poor Pontevedro into a financial tailspin. To that end, Hanna’s besotted ex, Count Danilo is already on the scene, partying. He has been enlisted to rekindle his romance with Hanna and save Pontevedro from disaster. After a comedy of errors involving the Pontevedrin ambassador’s endearing but adulterous wife and her callow suitor, true love prevails and the situation is saved to the rhythms of spirited dance.
Moving the action to Palm Beach could have provided a welcome alternative setting for this mixture of romance and intrigue. The island has a history of entertaining both joyous widows and louche fortune hunters but it is now a youthful place, too. With crisp English lyrics written nearly half a century ago by Sheldon Harnick, best known as the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, this production could have benefitted from minor revisions transporting the operetta’s action from Belle Époque Paris to roaring 2020s Palm Beach. Who needs a tourist trap like modern Paris’s frozen-in-amber Maxim’s when our local boîtes de nuit offer many of the same delights in the real world, albeit with much worse music?
There is even precedent. Last November, the Lake Worth Playhouse in nearby Lake Worth Beach recast Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in our locale, with the Island substituting for the play’s fashionable London scenes and West Palm Beach standing in for the country. As Palm Beach Opera vaults into the top rank of regional opera companies, it might be time for more imaginative approaches to production.
Lehár’s operetta has a cosmopolitan history befitting the Austro-Hungarian Empire that produced it. Its composer was born in what is today Slovakia to a Hungarian father and German-Hungarian mother. Its librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, were Austrian Jews. A runaway success from the time of its premiere, it appeared in Paris in 1909. The plot is taken from the now-forgotten play L’attaché d’ambassade (1861) by Henri Meilhac, a dramatist best remembered for his collaborative work on the libretti of George Bizet’s Carmen, Jules Massenet’s Manon, and most of the operettas of Jacques Offenbach. Meilhac’s theatrical efforts got him elected to the Académie Française, but the musical adaptation is a decidedly Viennese confection of international appeal.
The soprano Jennifer Rowley, who made her Palm Beach debut with this production, is a gifted singer, with a strong middle register well-suited to carrying Hanna’s moods and tempers, though sometimes she seemed more like an opera diva than a collected widow aware of the authority her fortune bestows upon her. Her upper range suffered from a throaty quality and sometimes, including in the finale, had squally notes. Andrew Manea showed great promise as Danilo. This fine young baritone debuted in Palm Beach as Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville just before the COVID pandemic. Here he was an agile master of the role’s comedic dimensions. The veteran baritone Dwayne Croft, a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera earlier in his career, cast a fine presence as Baron Zeta, the betrayed and beleaguered Pontevedrin ambassador. The soprano Elizabeth Sutphen (also in her company debut) and the tenor Duke Kim sang rosily and with youthful delight in the supporting roles of Zeta’s unfaithful wife Valencienne and her suitor Camille.
In his company debut, the conductor Ward Stare drew a buoyant sound from the orchestra. Under Gregory Ritchey’s direction, the choruses resounded with high-spirited energy. Donna Morgan’s choreography delivered reasonably good can-cans but she might have taken more time to teach the principals how to waltz. Waltzes are at the heart of the operetta, and the awkward box steps here underserved what could have been great romantic moments.