Celebration sets tone for comedic ‘The Merry Widow’

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Opera-goers ready to indulge on the Viennese torte known as Franz Lehar’s comedic operetta The Merry Widow on Saturday night at the Detroit Opera House had an unexpected extra treat with a birthday cake for David DiChiera.

DiChiera, founder and artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), turned 80 on April 8, and before the performance got started, attention turned to the plucky fellow who brought opera to Detroit in 1971. Long before names like Ilitch and Gilbert became synonymous with Detroit’s rebirth, there was DiChiera, who started a humble opera company downtown 44 years ago and built it into the respectable force it is today.

There was a salute on stage by MOT President and CEO Wayne S. Brown and an appearance by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who called DiChiera “a true visionary who helped transform Detroit.” Singer/actor Ron Raines led the crowd in “Happy Birthday,” a brief video was shown and DiChiera’s grandchildren wheeled out a cake to “Dr. D.,” as he’s affectionately known. DiChiera wiped his eyes a couple of times, but he was obviously pleased.

So the celebratory tone was set for the frothy Merry Widow, which was performed in English. Deborah Voigt, who made her MOT debut in the title role, is associated more with the taxing repertoire of Wagner and Strauss, but she scaled back her powerful voice and seemed to have a romp in the part. She doesn’t have the coloratura flights of fancy or natural inclination for the role that Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland had, but Voigt did a creditable job in her first outing in the part of the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari.

She sang with fetching tenderness in her “Vilia” aria, but one wishes she would let loose a bit more in other arias, perhaps interpolating a big top note as the rollicking second act concludes.

Tenor Roger Honeywell portrayed Count Danilo, a role often sung by a lyric baritone. He has a nice instrument, but it didn’t blend particularly well with Voigt’s voice. But the two singers’ sly dramatic interchange was spot-on.

Hanna and Danilo had a romance years ago, but because Hanna was then penniless, Danilo’s aristocratic uncle put the kibosh on marriage. After Hanna inherits millions after her husband dies, the romance heats up again, sort of.

Danilo doesn’t want to be seen as a gold-digger (although we’re not sure he isn’t) and Hanna wants him to state his love for her, which he won’t do. Although they get hitched at the end, their relationship is coy and arch, with a lot of game playing, almost like a couple of high-school kids.

More interesting is the romance between Camille (tenor Aaron Blake) and Valencienne (soprano Amanda Squitieri), largely because it’s illicit. Valencienne is married to the pompous, bumbling Baron Zeta (Richard Suart), and at any moment one feels she could succumb to forbidden love.

Blake, a fine actor who possesses a lovely leggiero tenor, sang exquisitely, but he skirted his crowning high note in the “Rosebud Romance.” His MOT debut was attractive, and one hopes he’ll return here, perhaps in a Mozartean role.

Squitieri has a bright, round voice, but Lehar doesn’t give Valencienne enough to sing.

Suart and Jason Graae (as Njegus) both have excellent comic timing, something that director Kelly Robinson capitalizes on. There are times when the comedy dissolves into campy high jinks, but who can’t laugh at a chorus line of men engaging in Rockette-like kicks?

Choreographer Jeffrey Rebudal gets high marks for adding gloss and high spirits to the production, and Susan Memmott-Allred’s costumes and Michael Yeargan’s sets evoke the Belle Epoque period with winning style.

Conductor Gerald Steichen’s tasteful work in the pit contributed to the overall polish of this Widow.

After the operetta, complimentary champagne was served in the lobby to attendees to toast DiChiera’s milestone birthday — a fizzy nightcap to a festive evening.

MOT’s ‘The Merry Widow’

Repeats at 7:30 p.m. April 15 and 18 and 2:30 p.m. April 19, Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; Tickets: $25-$128. 313-237-7464, michiganopera.org.