A ‘Merry’ melting pot from the L.A. Opera

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Opera’s sort-of-new production of “The Merry Widow” might well have offered a polyglot Pontevedro on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The director, Lotfi Mansouri, grew up in Tehran. A German conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, comes by way of the Tasmanian Symphony, which he heads.

The lovers couldn’t be more American. The popular mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is Texan. Baritone Rodney Gilfry recently ran the L.A. Marathon. They can, if asked, can-can. And they do. More than once. Athletic legs are kicked high, American drum-major style. Lots of other people onstage have lots of accents, caricaturing the French, the Viennese and something vaguely Balkan.

Pontevedro, in Franz Lehar’s beloved 1905 operetta, is a thinly veiled Montenegro. Lehar satirized Balkan unrest in the Austro-Hungarian empire and delighted in the new eroticism then pervading Vienna. “Merry Widow” (De Lustige Witwe) premiered the same month as Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which inaugurated an era of sexual perversion in German-language opera. And even Lehar clearly meant something more than just good, clean fun.


Mansouri does not. The production has a complicated history. It was made for San Francisco Opera in 2001. At the same time, L.A. Opera mounted an earlier Mansouri “Widow” purchased from Utah Opera, but we shared San Francisco’s costumes. The productions weren’t that different. What with added dance, both went on forever (nearly 3 1/2 hours in the theater). Up north, Mansouri commissioned new dialogue from Wendy Wasserstein that tried for sassiness but fell flat. L.A. remains happy with the hopelessly dated jokes of Christopher Hasall’s English version, spiced up by Mansouri. An evening of rhymes like “Love unspoken, faith unbroken” is a long evening, indeed.

Much of the performance’s sophistication and sensuality comes from the pit. Lang-Lessing gets a rich, creamy sound from the orchestra, which plays beautifully all night. He conducts Lehar’s waltzes and flirtatious melodies as knowingly multi-layered as Mahler.

Gilfry and Graham have their moments. He has a Clark Gable mustache and an easy charm -- when not asked to prance like a horse. At her best, Graham is his wise-cracking Carol Lombard.

The mezzo has a habit of trying too hard, but she finally edged into greatness in the title role of Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea,” her company debut earlier in the season. Put in a situation of intense dramatic focus, she proved brilliantly seductive and grippingly complex.

As a widow more wry than merry, she doesn’t overdo it here either. She obviously enjoys parading around in Thierry Bosquet’s fancy costumes, framed by Michael Yeargan’s Secessionist set. She is a game dancer but not a natural. She is also a pleasure to hear, but the soprano role lies high for her.

Gilfry might be an ideal Danilo in more suave surroundings. His has always been a light, elegant baritone. Sometimes he was asked Saturday to strain.


The more attention to the main couple, the better. They are surrounded by clowning around and dopey dancing. Eric Cutler, a tall, strong young tenor, and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, a tiny, barely heard soprano, make a curious couple as Valencienne and her French lover.

For the record, Malcolm MacKenzie (Cascada), Greg Fedderly (St. Brioche), Jamie Offenbach (Bogdanowitsch), Rena Harms (Sylviane) and Elizabeth Brackenbury (Olga) are on hand and required to ham it up. Jason Graae as Njegus, the clerk at the Pontevedrin legation, hams it up the most. But he is a real song-and-dance man and a delight.

Spoken dialogue is amplified but not well. The Pavilion’s acoustics are difficult for miking voices, and unless great effort is made, annoying reverberation and unnatural sonic perspectives result. Even so, I doubt any inaudible bits were important.


‘The Merry Widow’

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and May 9, 12, 23, 26; 2 p.m. Sunday; 1 p.m. May 19; 8 p.m. May 20

Price: $20 to $220

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or