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Crowd-pleasing 'Merry Widow' a success on almost every level

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 14, 2011, at 12:04 a.m.

Wichita Grand Opera delivered Saturday night on its vow to stage a fully realized, sumptuous rendition of "The Merry Widow," offering a crowd-pleasing performance that excelled on almost every level.

Those in the weekend audience were treated to a frothy yet ambitious production boasting magnificent costumes, sophisticated sets, spirited choreography and an eminently able cast.

All this for an operetta, one might ask? It's true that Franz Lehar's most accomplished work is a souffle of a story, yet it can be delivered on a grand scale.

The plot centers around a rich young widow, Hanna Glawari, who is being coerced into marrying a fellow Marsovian — the rakish Count Danilo — to ensure her money stays in the bankrupt fatherland. The two once were in love, but his family denied a match to the penniless Hanna. Thanks to a silly storyline, all turns out well in the end.

Soprano Kallen Esperian made her debut as the widow Hanna, enthusing the audience with well-controlled, engaging vocals, if not overall warmth in her stage presence. Still, her achingly beautiful rendition of the famous "Vilja Song" was among the high points of the evening.

Esperian and co-star Michael Nansel as the Count were at their best when having fun with the material. Nansel, in particular, was a natural delight, romantically whisking Hanna about in a Viennese waltz but also camping it up with his comrades during "Women, Women." His rich baritone, too, was in fine form.

As the flirtatious yet ultimately faithful ambassador's wife, spinto soprano Lauren Sawyer thrilled with her vocal artistry. Her second-act duet with tenor Dustin Peterson as Camille, her admirer, showcased both voices exquisitely. Peterson, a Wichita Grand Opera young artist, shows great promise in vocal range and dexterity, and held his own as an actor, too.

Also deserving praise was the orchestra under the deft direction of Martin Mazik. Lehar's score is both substantial and diverse in its mix of waltzes, can-can and mazurka, yet Mazik showed an intimate understanding of the challenges of such a work.

Diane Gans' choreography was elegant, festive and bawdy — all at the right times, of course — with the "Merry Widow" waltz and can-can numbers especially indelible.

Effective sets, lighting and period costumes helped create just the right tone.

"The Merry Widow" arguably is as much musical theater as it is opera, and enlisting Broadway director Jayme McDaniel — making his Wichita Grand Opera debut — was meritorious.

The only drawback to the evening were voices that were often inaudible from stage, marring an otherwise winning performance.

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