Nowhere has the sexual-comic potential of sun-drenched terraces, shady gardens, and bedrooms bedeviled by too many doors been exploited more wittily and tenaciously than in the theaters of Paris and Vienna, with the minor difference that Paris slightly favored ribaldry, Vienna humor. So one reason that Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow (1905) shares the apex of the light-opera pyramid with Strauss's Die Fledermaus is that it has a Viennese libretto based on a Parisian play. Moreover, Lehár, of Czech, German, and Hungarian parentage, brought further flavors to the mix, which may contribute to the way this, his best work, has taken such firm root the world over. At 95, that merry widow is still kicking up her heels. Something in us flows with the waltz, and Viennese operetta is its bubbly source.
But in the Met's first-ever production of The Merry Widow, the kick has gone out of the champagne, and tasting flat is as bad as, if not worse than, singing flat. You probably know the story. Hanna Glawari, the young widowed millionairess from Pontevedro (for which read Montenegro), comes to Paris to find a new husband. Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador, counts on Hanna's 20 million to help his small, bankrupt Balkan country survive. A Pontevedrian must marry her, besting the legions of French suitors. The likeliest candidate is dashing Count Danilo, the embassy's first secretary (or attaché, in the attractive new translation by Martin Crimp), who would have married Hanna back home had not his aristocratic family objected to a commoner. Now a confirmed bachelor preferring the company of the grisettes at Maxim's, he shuns Hanna, who nevertheless sets out to win him.
The main, though unwilling, contender on the French side is Camille de Rosillon, madly in love with Baron Zeta's French wife, Valencienne, who returns his love but chooses to remain faithful and pushes him toward Hanna. After all sorts of farcical complications, we abut on the mandatory happy ending. To make this fly, the leads should look like the cover of the Met's program: a dapper, mustachioed swain waltzing around a willowy belle, rapturously bent back over his arm. Instead, we get the patriarchal, parallelepipedal Plácido Domingo, staid verging on stodgy. Frederica von Stade, though not correspondingly matronly, does not bend much either, literally or histrionically. She comes across foursquarely Amurrican, nice but goody-goody, delivering her spoken lines in an almost arthritic manner.
The stars still sing out fully enough for the work's less-than-overwhelming requirements, but their voices lack a certain luster -- that frothy, insinuating filigree that cajoles its way into our ears. The secondary lovers, Paul Groves and Emily Pulley, please in all departments -- she even manages a cartwheel in the cancan scene -- but no one here will go down in operetta history.
The chief problem, however, is the production. The director, Tim Albery, does not quite elicit the swirl, the heady abandon called for, nor does he come up with enough amusing detail. He is not helped by Antony McDonald, whose costumes are routinely buffo, and whose sets don't make sense. Why should Hanna's first entrance be down a staircase leading from the Eiffel Tower straight into the hall of the Pontevedrian embassy? Why should Act Two, in the Glawari garden, start with snowfall and Hanna's emerging from a sled, while everything else thereafter is steadily summery? The lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel is unable to coax enchantment out of this scenery or evoke an amorous atmosphere.
But the true fiasco is Philippe Giraudeau's choreography. Elegant couples waltz in crouching like speed skaters. Hanna and Danilo dance a supposedly Serbian kolo, cobbled together from bits of discarded mazurka and tarantella. A male ensemble in evening clothes capers like a bunch of demented chorus boys; the men in a slow Pontevedrian dance seem to be bitten by tsetse flies, and languidly sink into a heap. One such narcolept then aimlessly gyrates around the singing Hanna until he, too, collapses. What keeps the show going is Andrew Davis's conducting of the responsive orchestra with both verve and finesse. Still, if the music is all you want, you can get it less expensively on disc -- try Schwarzkopf and Gedda on EMI or Studer and Skovhus on DG.
Peter G. Davis will return in a few weeks.