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OPERA REVIEW : Two Casts in NYCO ‘Widow’

Times Staff Writer

New York City Opera shucked the serious stuff and turned to Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” over the weekend to close a six-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

The production, new in 1982, was revived last year, and offers much that is attractive to look at. Helen Pond and Herbert Senn’s Nouveau sets--dominated by turquoise, purple and rose--are handsome. Suzanne Mess’ turn-of-the-century costumes are bright and stylish.

Ronald Bentley’s staging, initially criticized for overly busy high jinks, was later toned down into relatively straightforward action; it was this version that was recreated in Orange County by Cynthia Edwards.

The company offered two casts in a number of key roles.

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Leigh Munro was a warm, appealing, vulnerable, melting and yielding Sonia (a.k.a. Hanna Glawari, the Widow) Saturday afternoon. She sang with an aristocratic, dark-toned, weighty soprano, but inclined more toward beauty of vowels than clarity of enunciation. Thus she sang “Vilia” with gentleness and refined pianissimo, but the words were virtually indistinct.

Saturday evening, Michele McBride proved an intelligent, sophisticated, sly, sensual and clever Sonia. She offered fine-edged vocalism though with some wobbliness under pressure. But she sang “Vilia” with clear diction, seamless line and magical tenderness.

Unfortunately, opposite each of them as Danilo was baritone Louis Otey--tall, broad-shouldered, handsome in a Clark Gable look-alike way, but stiff and wooden in acting. There was virtually no chemistry between him and Munro in the afternoon, but he reacted more credibly to McBride in the evening.

In both cases, he sang with coarse, forced vocalism, and had problems, particularly in the afternoon--losing focus, tone and even at times, control. Oddly, he, rather than the Widows, got to interpolate a song in Act III, “Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss” (from Lehar’s “Paganini”). But the effort drew no applause whatsoever from the Saturday evening audience.

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(Nor did the song fit well stylistically or in terms of its orchestration. “Paganini” was written 20 years after “Merry Widow,” and in the meantime Lehar had worked hard to develop his style.)

The secondary pair of lovers proved quite different. Gran Wilson brought matinee-idol looks to Camille in the afternoon, but sang with a light tenor more suitable for musical theater than opera, although it could blossom on top. He offered generalized acting.

Ruth Golden was his Natalie, singing with lyricism and clarity, and strongly exploiting her concern over their parting.

As the evening Camille, Mark Thomsen proved boyish but ardent, attentive and serious. Despite a somewhat metallic and constricted tenor, he could portray pertinent, genuine distress.

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Opposite him, Susanne Marsee, who on Tuesday had portrayed a sensuous Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” offered a rather prim, up-tight Natalie, and seemed more involved in a kind of cat-and-mouse game with him than conscious of painful loss. But she sang with fine focus.

Appearing in both casts, James Billings divested himself of the TV sitcom cutesiness he had occasionally indulged in as the Second Priest in “Zauberflote” earlier in the week and offered a dry, clever Nisch.

On both occasions, Imre Pallo conducted with style and dash, with lingering affection and expansiveness, despite a penchant for slow tempos. However, he also rather often allowed the instrumentalists to overwhelm the singers, particularly at the matinee.

The company orchestra, which all week had repeated the dreary cycle of starting imprecisely and gaining confidence only as the evening progressed, introduced new levels of slovenliness at these performances. The strings, already thin-sounding, were sour and squeally in the heights, occuring invariably at the most exposed moments.

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Choreographer Sharon Halley provided stilted waltzes, pseudo-folk character dances and a surpassingly vulgar cancan. The dancers coped gamely, if not with much finesse.

Adrian Ross provided the bright, clever translation.


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