Rita Kohn

The Merry Widow

Indianapolis Opera

Clowes Memorial Hall

Nov. 18 and 20

Robin Follman in 'The Merry Widow'

Ben Spierman, stage director for Indianapolis Opera's centennial production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow, nailed the operetta's essence as a multilayered comedy with dimensional characters, realistic interpersonal complications and ethnic identity. A fine cast and orchestra under the baton of James Caraher romped through the gorgeous score and sprightly libretto (English translation by Sheldon Harnick). A corps of dancers showcased an array of folk and turn-of-the-20th century popular dances, including a spirited can-can, choreographed by Michelle Jarvis.

Along with the absolutely lovely set, costume, lighting and wig/makeup design, for an opera company, are foremost production values. Yet, what audiences also received Nov. 18 and 20 at Clowes Memorial Hall was notable acting that plumbed the multiple meanings of the German root word for lustige, as in Die lustige Witwe.

Longing underlies the fractured romance between Hanna, a young, vivacious, rich widow, and Count Danilo Danilovitch, whose uncle had cut off the youthful relationship with Hanna. Robin Follman and Mark Thomsen are perfect at sparring, revealing deep-seated hurts and working through them toward a believable on-stage affirmation of abiding love. They present their feelings through oblique stories. Follman's warm soprano notably surrounded the signature "Vilia" with soulful lost love. Thomsen's rich tenor wrapped vehemence around festering wounds in the poignant take of a prince and princess who can't communicate.

Carnal love motivates the secondary love complication. Camille is pursuing Valencienne, who is married to the Baron Zeta, who is so busy pairing Danilo with Hanna he's oblivious to his wife's blossoming affair. Sarah Paige Hagstrom has the vocal and performance range to pull off the balance between lusting for that affair and safeguarding her married position. You'll next see her at Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Yuletide" celebration. Nicholas Coppolo came into his own vocally with the lilting love song "Just as a Rosebud Blossoms," yet he lacked the stage presence to convince this reviewer of his billing as a "very eligible Parisian bachelor."

Desire to retain Hanna's sizeable fortune in Pontevedro drives Jason Richard Plourde to dominate as Baron Zeta. As that tiny nation's ambassador to Paris, Plourde propels the action with non-stop energy.

And, rounding out the fullness of the German lust, was Douglas Perry's impeccable comedic characterization of Njegus, the embassy adjutant. His third-act show-stopping song-and-dance routine brought this Shortridge High School graduate home.

For the record, The Merry Widow is set in 1905 Paris. Lehar created a romp with staying power.

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