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A CurtainUp LA Review
The Merry Widow
by Laura Hitchcock

The Merry Widow, Franz Lehar's operetta presented by the Los Angeles Opera, delivers a colorful holiday package of love, laughter and nostalgia. Those who saw Kiss Me, Kate at the Shubert this fall will recognize in Cole Porter's "Wunderbar" a homage to the famous waltz that has been a popular favorite since 1905.

Although this production hits the expected notes in most senses of the term, it sometimes veers between being too close to the original and not close enough. Based on an 1861 French play, the libretto shows its Gallic influence by interspersing the flirtatious widow's pursuit of Count Danilo with a sub-plot involving a fan and the illicit affairs of three married women. One lady is large and the trite offensive bit when the fat lady falls on the guy for cheap laughs should have been left at the turn of the century.

The Opera has found first-rate voices for its principal roles but the characterizations, under the direction of Lotfi Mansouri, vary. Rodney Gilfry makes a dashing Count Danilo with a blazing smile that makes him a cuddly womanizer, not a caddish one. Carol Vaness is an erotic, exotic Merry Widow but her Anna is overbearingly seductive from the get-go, lending no facets to her role as a woman who was seduced and abandoned. Gleeful in her ability to force Danilo to declare his love because his country needs her fortune, she evokes no sympathy either as a woman who was hurt or a woman delivering tart repartee. Her syrupy passion is convincing but it would have been fun to see more delight in sparring from a couple who used to enjoy each other.

Virginia Tola, a beautiful ingénue, plays Baron Zeta's straying wife Valenciennes with delicate charm. Although the role of her would-be lover Camille doesn't give an actor much to work with, handsome Charles Castronovo is so wooden it's not much of a stretch to see why this Valenciennes finds her robust old husband, as played by Dean Peterson, more fun. The acting is worth working on because Castronovo's impeccable tenor is breathtaking and one of the highlights of the evening.

The versatile Jason Graae, recently seen here in his one-man show of popular and comic music at the Cinegrill, lends a much-appreciated comic pizzazz to the role of Njegus. Michael Yeargan's wonderful art deco sets set the theme and get the production off to a glorious start. Costume designer Thierry Bosquet seems to have taken a black-and-white note from My Fair Lady's Ascot scene. Except for the fluffy pink can-can costumes and the second-act blue moonlight harem theme, many of his colors and designs seem heavy for this Viennese torte.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey created inventive dances, skipped the waltzes and brought the house down with her can-can. " Girls, Girls, Girls!" was the audience's favorite number. The other familiar songs come off equally well: Vaness's exquisitely haunting "Vilia", a homage to the Widow's peasant childhood; Count Danilo's boyishly enthusiastic "Chez Maxim"¸ where he names with delicious relish all the girls who are queens, Lolo, Dodo. Froufrou, etc.; and the famous "Waltz" , as Vaness and Gilfry sing it softly, throbs with the romanticism of two glowing hearts. No complaints on the musical delivery, where director Mansouri shines, and that's the bottom line in opera. For an improved libretto, catch the 1952 movie version on late night TV.

Composer: Franz Lehar
English version by Christopher Hasall, with additional material by Lotfi Mansouri
Director: Lotfi Mansouri
Conductor: John Demain
Cast: Dean Peterson (Baron Zeta), Virginia Tola (Valenciennes), Rodney Gilfry (Count Danilo), Carol Vaness (Anna Glawari), Charles Castronovo (Camille), Malcolm Macenzie (Vicomte Cascada), Greg Fedderly (Raoul de St. Brioche), Louis Lebherz (Bodanowitsch), Jessica Rivera (Sylviane), Ross Halper (Kromow), Marnie Mosiman (Olga), James Creswell (Pritschitsch), Brooks Almy (Praskowia), Jason Graae (Njegus), Gordon Goodman (Maitre d'Hotel)
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Design: Alan Burrett
Sound Design & Original Music: Mitch Greenhill
Costumes realized after sketches by Thierry Bosquet
Running Time: Three hours, with two 20-minute intermissions
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, (213) 365-3500
From Dec. 2, 5, 7, 12, 15, 19, 22, 2001
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on Dec. 2.
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