The Merry Widow is a lavish and light escape into Art Nouveau high society

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      By Franz Lehár. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 20. Continues until October 28

      Vancouver Opera general director Kim Gaynor pretty much nailed it when she said, before the opening-night performance of The Merry Widow, that it was the “perfect antidote to today’s voting procedures”.

      Yes, the drab school and community-centre gymnasiums where thousands of Vancouverites spent the day standing in line and squinting at confusingly long lists of names were about as far as you could get from the lavish, glittering ballrooms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—or at least from its embassies and ex-pats in fin-de-siècle Paris. It was a turn-of-the-last-century world where, apparently, no one had much to worry about beyond which insanely oversized plumed hat to wear, which eligible partner to waltz with, and where to find the next glass of Champagne.

      In the hands of this Vancouver Opera production helmed by veteran stage director Kelly Robinson, the 1905 work is finely polished, with leads whose sparkling singing is mostly matched by nuanced comedic acting.

      The lush art-nouveau sets, from Utah Opera, envelop the action in scrolling Klimt-like screen prosceniums. In the first ballroom act, guests in black and white swirl against lavender hues; the second act is all painterly moonlit blues, and the final one is eye-popping Maxim’s scarlet, with glowing chandeliers.

      Vancouver choreographer Joshua Beamish sends dancers waltzing and cancanning throughout, most memorably when the bamboozled men in the show, bemoaning women, pull off their own slapstick kick line. In one fun, gender-bending touch, there are a few extra-muscular, hirsute Grisettes—and they drop into splits as easily as their female counterparts.

      How much charm you find in all this may depend on how able you are to transport yourself to another time and place. It’s been 28 years since VO has staged this operetta, and that may be in part due to the challenges of making it relevant to now. High-class Austro-Hungarian society was mannered, and so The Merry Widow can feel arch and affected today—especially in the spoken sections, which sometimes have difficulty reaching the far rows of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The comedy feels quaint, and the concerns are squarely those of the upper class; one recurring joke involves a married woman’s lost fan with the words “I love you” scrawled onto it. A further mental leap in this rendition is that, while the songs are delivered in Lehár’s original German, the spoken dialogue is in English (by Sheldon Harnick).

      The plot centres on Hanna Glawari, a widow who’s inherited a vast fortune that every man in Paris, and her own fictional home country of tiny Pontevedro, wants to get his hands on. The only one she wants to marry is a former beau, Count Danilo, but neither will admit they love each other. Their story is played off the ingenue Valencienne, who’s married to the unsuspecting old ambassador, but is starting to give in to the flirtations of young Frenchman Camille.

      Smartly, director Robinson emphasizes Hanna’s empowerment—a title character who gleefully controls her own fate. And gifted soprano Lucia Cesaroni gives her a strength and sass that go a long way to making the silliness feel more modern. She’s also gifted with a warm, charismatic range, and turns the second-act favourite “Vilja Song”, with the help of a mesmerizing chorus, into a lustrous gem.

      John Cudia's Count Danilo plays hard to get with Lucia Cesaroni's Hanna.
      Tim Matheson


      Tenor John Cudia makes a dashing Danilo, even hinting at a bit of vulnerability behind his upper-crust exterior; like Cesaroni, he's adept with saying one thing and meaning quite another—wordplay that is so integral to Lehár's work and this particular high society.

      Gilbert & Sullivan veteran Richard Suart’s somewhat doddery ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta, is hilariously naive about his wife’s dalliances; watch him ask her suitor Camille “May I entrust my wife to your safe keeping?” For their parts, John Tessier as Camille and Sasha Djihanian as Valencienne find an authentic sweetness in their playful duets about love.

      Young conducting star Wade Stare, who last led this piece at the Metropolitan Opera, makes all of this flow like Champagne, bringing the necessary lilt and light touch to a score that sometimes feels cinematic but never melodramatic.

      On opening night, over the course of three acts, the opera gained momentum and won over its audience, earning a lot of laughter by the second act and a standing O when the leads came out for their bows. After a long day of voting, people were ready to join the waltz.

      The Merry Widow's lavish Art Nouveau sets suit the era of luxury.
      Tim Matheson