On one level, Frank Lehár’s The Merry Widow is as light and bubbly as the Champagne that flows throughout the show. It’s filled with dance numbers, from waltzes to cancans, as the elite in fin-de-siècle Paris attend grand balls and garden parties. There’s even one scene where the title character hosts an elaborate celebration that re-creates famous art-nouveau hot spot Maxim’s in her home.
But veteran Canadian director Kelly Robinson, who was last in town to stage Vancouver Opera’s Evita, wants to shade in all the other levels of meaning in the 1905 comic operetta—from its many views on love to its political and social satire. And he’s assembled a top-flight operatic cast to do so.
“It’s a human comedy, and without really fine actors, we start to lose the finesse with which the characters negotiate their needs—that’s when those layers are really brought out,” Robinson says at VO’s headquarters in East Vancouver.
He’s just taken a break from rehearsing with Sasha Djihanian and John Tessier, who play the married Valencienne and Camille de Rosillon. Their characters flirt throughout the first act, and sparkling German songs about love have been echoing through the building.
“We find out later that they really haven’t done anything except engage in wordplay. They’re two people who are in love with the idea of love,” Robinson explains. “What’s most important is they find the best possible way to say it and to feel it, and they’re not so interested in the details.
“So they’re a kind of foil for the main couple,” he adds, referring to Hanna Glawari, the “Merry Widow”, and Count Danilo Danilovitch, whom she’s pursuing. “And they’re as superficial about their love as the main pair are serious about it.”
In the operetta, Hanna (Italian-Canadian soprano Lucia Cesaroni) has a huge inheritance from her late husband and has headed to Paris. There, she wants to reconnect with Danilo (tenor John Cudia), whom she was blocked from marrying years before. But Danilo refuses to marry her for her money now.
“Danilo and Hanna rarely get into the discussion of love because it’s something they actually know about each other and they don’t have to talk about it,” Robinson offers. “There are obstacles in the way, but they’re mature; they’re grown-up.”
Neither of them is either willing or able to state what he or she really feels, and the entire operetta plays with that duality. “This play is really about people saying things and meaning other things, which was very much a thing of high status in Viennese society, that sense of wordplay. And that’s part of the delight of this,” points out Robinson.
Amid all this, Lehár and his Viennese librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, take several shots at the politics stewing in the pre–First World War Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the Habsburgs were at their height and spending on their Balkan territories was causing a commotion. (In the show, Hanna hails from a small Balkan state called Pontevedro—not coincidentally sounding like Montenegro—whose embassy in Paris is conspiring to keep her wealth in that country.)
“I think that’s the joy of operetta: when you treat it as a serious art form,” Robinson says. “You can enjoy it purely as a kind of pop music, in which we listen to some lovely tunes, drink some Champagne, and laugh appropriately. Or you can find the way the piece satirizes the ruling class, the wealthy, and the hypocrisy in politics and society.”
Don’t overlook the fact, he adds, that this is an operetta far before its time, with a strong, central female who wants to determine her own fate.
“The other layer is the gender politics,” the director elaborates. “You’ve got this woman with the resources of her wits and resources in wealth. How does she move through the minefield of society in order to get what she wants?”
In rehearsal, the director is focusing on that story—on what would happen, he says, if a woman inherited this wealth and tried to reconnect with an aristocrat she hadn’t been allowed to marry earlier in her life. Amid all the glittering music and swirling dancing you’ll see on the Queen Elizabeth stage, he wants you to see human beings—albeit ones from a very glamorous, mannered period, long, long ago.
And that’s why Robinson considers operetta to be, as he puts it, the ultimate “tonic for our times”. “That’s what operetta says: set aside your life, imagine this world, and come on in and live with us for a while in fin-de-siècle Paris,” he says.
Vancouver Opera presents The Merry Widow at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (October 20) and October 25, 27, and 28.