Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Comedy isn't pretty

May 06, 2007

Hello Susan!
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2007
Or at least it isn't if it is done poorly. Which really gets to the heart of the problem with LA Opera’s current production of Die Lustige Witwe. There is much to like about this evening, but the whole thing works so hard to achieve the desired effect that it can get cloying at times. Witwe is one of three operas this season (the others being Hansel und Gretel and Mahagonny) that the company elected to present in English translation. I suppose the notion is that translation somehow makes them more accessible to an audience who might not be willing to see this opera otherwise. However, this production is not unlike an American trying to communicate with a foreign tourist by speaking English to them as if they were stupid and deaf : our company seems to believe that translation is insufficient to get Witwe's jokes across, so just to make sure nothing is missed, the cast repeats them as slowly as possible.

Not that this afternoon’s performance was like watching paint dry. However, when the length of Lehár’s work reaches Wagnerian proportions, as it did here, one begins to drift away. Actually I’m making things sound worse than they are. There are several charming qualities to this production and they go by the names of Susan Graham, Rod Gilfry, and Eric Cutler. All three gave exemplary performances and Graham's wonderful voice often made you forget the ridiculous French accents everyone was trying to affect. At times it was like watching those European vacation episodes of I Love Lucy except without the comedy. Graham is funny and has good timing but there is too much here for her to overcome. Cutler is quickly becoming one of my favorites and Gilfry is always a pleasure to hear.

Another surprise though was an honest-to-God competent ballet sequence at the start of Act III. I certainly don't mind ballet in my opera, but I must admit I've never seen it done well, particularly here in LA. Special credit goes to Peggy Hickey and her leads in Act III, Lisa Gillespie and Jonathan Sharp, who were actually given the time, attention, and space to put a dance sequence together that was worth seeing. The production comes by way of SF Opera and Lofti Mansouri who also jazzed up the libretto a little bit. His liberties were probably much easier for many to swallow than the ones Gary Marshall took with Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein here in 2005. Somehow, though, I'd rather have the Catskill kitsch than this tepid slow-motion Juggernaut. Still, there are probably worse ways to spend 3-1/2 hours.

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