Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
However, Viennese Operetta and operetta in general have fallen out of public favor, so that good productions of The Merry Widow are few and far between and very good productions even rarer. St. Petersburg Opera Company's production is very good, with some superb elements, showing off this plucky company at its very best. It is beyond thrilling to hear Franz Lehár wonderful score sung by young, vibrant voices. The Metropolitan Opera production was for a beloved soprano rounding the corner toward the end of her singing career and she lowered the key of Hanna's big aria. When the production was revived, a mezzo was in the titular role and she had to take the aria down even further. What a delight to hear it beautifully sung conscrito, which means as written. This is only one of the many vocal thrills at The Palladium over the next few nights. Yes, The Merry Widow is operetta, but vocal requirements are almost as demanding as our major opera composers.
This production is representative of most of this company's work, the dramatic compromises forced by cramped stage space noticeable, but in the end all the company strengths are also in place: the alert lively conducting by Maestro Mark Sforzini, the outstanding pick up orchestra, the lavish costuming, and the ability to find voices on their way up the career ladder. A couple in the current cast I fear will not be available to this company in a few short years, they will have moved on to better engagements.
Kelli Butler, who a few years ago sang The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute for this company, is our Hanna Glawari. Yes, she is a widow, but still young, according to the story. Her husband died soon after their marriage, leaving her two million francs, which is why everyone is chasing her romantically. Ms. Butler is young and glamorous, lovely to look at and equally so to hear. During "Vilja" I was guilty of closing my eyes for some moments, better to enjoy the beauty of the top of her voice. Jesse Donner has just the right voice for Count Danilo Danilovitsch, our hero. He is definitely a tenor, but content to sing throughout the evening in the middle of the voice. His stage persona is less dashing leading man, more teddy bear, perfect for Nemorino in L'Elisir D'Amore or Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment, which is one the schedule for St. Pete opera, assuming that he has a good top, which I can't tell from this part.
Catie Shelley is Valencienne, wife of Baron Zeta, and Pedro Barbosa is Camille de Rosillon, the second couple. She is adorably cute with a tight soubrette soprano, perfect for the role and he is dashing, handsome with a lovely tenor, making their many duets highlights of the evening.
John Seesholtz as Baron Zeta, John-Andrew Fernandez as Vicomte Cascada, Dylan Morrongiello as Raoul de St. Brioche, Shaun Rice as Kromow, Robert Rigsby as Pritschitsch, and Stephen M. Ray, Jr. as Bogdanovitch are the men of the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris who in act two sing the showstopping septet "Women" which gets encored. Matthew McGee as factotum Njegus participates in this number as well and has his own piece de resistance in the third act, something about being Parisian. After the number with Matt still center stage, someone asks him what he is doing, to which he responds "stopping the show," which is completely true.
The production is sung in an English version by Ted and Deena Puffer and subtitles are in usage (the original libretto was written by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein). I don't think this is the most singable version I have heard. There is a well known version that originated at English National Opera, formally Sadler's Wells, and used for important productions elsewhere that is less colloquial, easier to sing than this one.
Adam Cioffari is stage director and he makes the whole affair lots of fun, which in the end is the desired result. Jerid Fox is back as set designer. He must be dashing up and down 3rd St in St. Petersburg a lot between American Stage where he is regularly employed and this company. His work for both is exemplary. Wardrobe Witchery provides the costumes, which are lovely; all the men look dashing in their evening finery, and the women glamorous. Keith Arsenault is lighting designer and Scott Daniel designs wigs and makeup. Both contribute strongly to the overall excellence of the production.
Opera, for sure a collaborative art form, is about music making. St. Petersburg Opera Company with limited resources consistently puts on fine opera/operetta performances. I've attended performances at small companies in Europe and this company compares very favorably with what I saw in years gone by. Anyone with limited exposure to live opera but a desire to see more will never be disappointed by this company. Maestro Mark Sforzini, for whom this is a labor of love, love and more love, is always the hero of this or any hour. His orchestra always plays well for him and he is a fine conductor. The Merry Widow is one of the company's best productions. I may very well show up for Tuesday night's last performance to enjoy it again.
The Merry Widow runs through October 22, 2019, at St. Petersburg Opera Company, Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg FL. For tickets and information, see www.stpeteopera.org.
Cast (in order of vocal appearance):