by Paula Citron
Let me begin by saying that the audience enjoyed Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of Lehar’s The Merry Widow far better than I did. In fact, they seem to love it, while I became increasingly unhappy as events unfolded.
The problem was not the production which was slick and polished. Director Guillermo Silva-Marin has these operettas down to a science as far as staging and set décor are concerned, while the Malabar costumes and wigs are always opulent. TOT puts on shows that look good. That is a given. I also had no fault with the orchestra, and kudos to Kevin Mallon for his evocative conducting. He brought a really strong romantic sensibility to the score and a well-drilled chorus to the stage.
Rather, the problem lay in the cast which was full of experienced singers who should have known better. There was absolutely no chemistry or sense of ensemble, and except for a few exceptions, it was a case of every person for himself or herself on stage and damn the torpedoes. It also didn’t help that the vocal performances, for the most part, were less than stellar.
Soprano Elizabeth Beeler’s Anna displayed painful high notes and appalling diction. One could not make out one word, and her voice was showing deep, deep strain at the edges. Baritone Theodore Baerg’s Danilo was sleep-walking through the acting bits and horrendously loud in the singing. His smug performance was the worst example of acting at rather than acting from. Mezzo-soprano Gisèle Fredette was horribly miscast as Valencienne. She is just too long in the tooth for the soubrette role. The singer has done valiant work for TOT in the past but she looked like Camille’s mother. As well, the anachronistic, updated lines peppered through the dialogue seemed limp, along with Silva-Marin’s silly choreography (that always includes the same hora-like steps, not to mention the predictable male can-can).
Thank goodness for tenor Stuart Howe as Camille whose beautiful voice displayed romantic delivery. He was a real matinee idol with beautiful phrasing, and at least, he sang from the heart. When he was on the stage, the production came alive. Baritone Keith O’Brien as Njegus was a terrific singing actor, while baritone Sean Watson as Zeta also gave a good account of himself, both vocally and acting. These men attempted to put zest in their roles while all around them were ciphers. Tenor Michael Finkbeiner as Cascada and tenor Justin Ralph as St. Brioche were a lively pair. While the former’s voice is more suitable to musical theatre, Ralph has an impressive sweet young lyric tenor sound, and certainly bears watching.
In the final analysis, The Merry Widow is one of my favourite operettas, but all this production did was make me grumpy.