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The Widow Cancan

[whitespace] The Merry Widow
Dan Herron Photography

Invitation to the Dance: Hanna (Barbara Divis) and Danilo (Brian Leerhuber) take a spin.

Opera San José kicks up its heels in a lively production of 'The Merry Widow'

By Michael J. Vaughn

YOU GET an idea of what Opera San José's The Merry Widow is all about early on, when one player shushes another during an outburst of German, points skyward and says, "Please! Your Grace! English! We don't have supertitles for the dialogue." Stage director Daniel Helfgot and his singers play fast and goofy with Franz Lehar's comedy, blending a bright and perky operetta smoothie laced with waltzes, polkas and all manner of naughty merrymaking.

Victor Leon and Leo Stein's snappy 1905 libretto describes the furor caused in Paris by the arrival of a $20 million widow (back when $20 million meant something), piquing the interest of every financially minded bachelor in Paris. Baron Mirko Zeta, ambassador of the fictional Slavic country Petrovenia, meanwhile, is determined to match widow Hanna Glawari with a suitor from the old country, thus keeping her millions safely in the fatherland.

The most likely candidate for the Baron's conniving is Count Danilo Danilowitsch, who spends his time carousing away his boyhood rejection by that very same Hanna, chasing cancan skirts and inhaling champagne down at Maxim's. When the Baron finally locates him, he is passed out with a trio of dancing girls, all of them oddly endowed with New Jersey accents.

Last Thursday's cast (the show uses alternating performers in the lead roles) was one of the strongest in recent Opera San José history, beginning with baritone Brian Leerhuber, who follows a fine Don Giovanni with a dandy Danilowitsch, endowing his rake with a pleasantly surprising touch of Danny Kaye sparkle and quirkiness. Soprano Barbara Divis, Hanna, returns from her winter sabbatical with a stunning new shimmer in her vibrato, evident especially in the haunting faux-Slav folk song, "Es lebt eine Vilja."

Playing the young adulterer Camille, tenor Robert McPherson sings as warmly as ever, most notably (when he could be heard above the too-loud orchestra) in "Wie eine Rosenknospe," his Act II wooing of the Baron's wife, Valencienne.

As Valencienne, we have the constantly charming mezzo Dana Johnson, who shines brightly in the brisk cross-phrases of her Act I duets with McPherson. The comic ground is held by baritone Andrew Solovay, who plays the Baron as a sort of clueless Groucho Marx, and baritone Ray Reinhardt, who foists his impressive stage skills on the baritone's advisor Njegus, a combination court jester/string-puller (Reinhardt is a founding member of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and appeared in this fall's world premiere of San Francisco Opera's A Streetcar Named Desire).

The production numbers are scads of fun, especially the random shouting and silly choreography of the men in their Act II gripe session on the subject of "Women!" The other bit of fun was the Act III can-can at Maxim's, populated with authentically sexy, athletic dancers whose flirtations justify Danilowitsch's devotion to the place.

That scene took place at the base of the Eiffel Tower, thanks to set designer Giulio Perrone, whose earlier scrubbed-lavender ballrooms and gardens filled the small Montgomery stage with voluminous fragments, leaving the rest to our imaginations. Another visual delight was Allison Connor's costumes, especially Divis' Petrovenian folk outfit in Act II, a floral skirt of moss greens and bright reds overlaid with a graceful blue frock.

David Rohrbaugh's orchestra was packed with dynamite and ready to hopscotch, but also capable of slower moments like the lush andante prelude to Act III.

All in all, this Widow is one of the rowdiest, most purely entertaining packages Opera San José has ever tied a ribbon to, but even in this, as in all good comedies, there were moments that held the candle flame to your heart. One of these came with the decades-long gaze between Divis and Leerhuber in Act II, stripping away the jolly double facade between the reunited lovers and exposing the pain behind truly good comedy, the grief behind every merry widow. Wordless and songless, it may have been the most profound moment in the opera.


The Merry Widow plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $32-$50. (408/437-4450)

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From the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro.

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