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Review: Opera Theater's Summerfest starts off rough with 'Merry Widow'

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
Anna Singer and Dimitrie Lazich appear in Opera Theater’s Summerfest production of “The Merry Widow.”
Patti Brahim
Anna Singer and Dimitrie Lazich appear in Opera Theater’s Summerfest production of “The Merry Widow.”

Productions are the heart of Summerfest, which is presenting a host of other musical events during July at The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.

“The Merry Widow,” which was first performed in 1905 in Vienna, is a sweet choice for the first show. The music of Franz Lehar's operetta is filled with wonderfully tuneful Viennese warmth. The romantic story features moments of worry and frustration for many characters, but the Viennese attitude of “situation critical but not serious” prevails, and there is a happy ending.

Summerfest's production was uneven at its opening on July 14, though it did rise to sustained beauty for the show's hit song, “Vilja.” Much of the singing was ordinary. And the staging failed to cope with the small space of the Art Deco Theater and was often tacky.

Anna Singer was a strong presence as Hanna Glawari, the widow of the richest man in her small country. The plot is driven by the need to find her a new man to keep her and her money from leaving for Paris, because if they left, the country would be bankrupt.

Singer is an excellent actress but was vocally miscast. She excels in heavier dramatic roles and often had a wobble on sustained notes.

Dimitrie Lazich was superb as Count Danilo Danilovitch, Hanna's former lover who has become a playboy and, in his spare time, is secretary of state. Lazich gave the most thoroughly satisfying performance of anyone onstage. His singing was commanding and nuanced. He was a thoroughly credible romantic lead.

Among secondary roles, Scott Timm was outstanding as Njegus, clerk to de facto head of state Baron Mirko Zeta. He gave an accomplished and funny portrayal, with a complete blend of vocal inflection and body language.

The staging by Mo Zhou, a very intelligent young Chinese director, had some good ideas, including sharp contrast between the Parisian style of aristocrats and earthier colors and manners, which reflect native culture.

But the production felt out of control, particularly with too many people onstage. It was most absurd when there was dancing. There was hardly any room for the individuals to move. The dancing itself was very poorly executed, straight out of amateur hour.

As if the stage was not over-crowded enough, the production included nearly 20 child dancers and the Oakland Girls Choir.

The first awful moments of the staging occurred early in Act 1, when Hanna is surrounded by men who fawn over her to win her hand and money. These men in formal attire pushed each other aside and jumped around like a pack of animals starving for treat.

The men were similarly over the top when a countertenor, well-sung by Guilliane Hauck, was gratuitously introduced into the action.

The handling of romantic and sexual innuendo became so predictably tacky that, when Hanna and Danilo have a battle of the sexes scene in Act 2, and Danilo says he won't bring out his big guns, you just knew he would channel his inner Andrew Dice Clay and move his hands to his groin. Some people in the audience, mostly men, laughed out loud.

The staging of “Vilja” was the exception to the rest of the production. The stage felt right, filled with couples in various pairings, sitting together in cozy affection and listening as Singer gave a heartfelt performance. It's the refrain — “Vilja, Oh Vilja, you maid of the woods, take me and make your dearest true love” — that makes this song so moving.

Bernard McDonald conducted with a good variety of tempi. Romantic moments were unrushed, and there was plenty of energy in other passages. The pick-up orchestra was well -contracted with excellent musicians throughout the ensemble. Winds and brass played with personality and point, but the violins' intonation was frequently splintered.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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