L. A. Opera's production of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" has elegant sets and costumes that put us squarely in turn of the century Paris. It's a tuneful affair that deals with love lost, love found, and it's gloriously entertaining. There are a lot of large groups of people that are moved effortlessly around the stage. A lot of fine dancing, and a top rate cast led by Carol Vaness and Rodney Gilfry.

It's the Baron's birthday, and it seems like all the married women at the Pontevedrian Embassy are having affairs. Valencienne, the Baron's wife is flirting with Camille. He goes to kiss her and she puts her fan between their faces and smiles coyly. Anna Glawari makes her grand entrance in a bright red gown with a big red feathery hat. She's young, beautiful, recently widowed, and has 50 million for an inheritance, which is most of the wealth of Pontevedro. The Baron needs to keep her from marrying a foreigner and transferring the wealth out of the country.

Carol Vaness is a star of the first order, but she has never struck me as having the presence she does in this. She's absolutely captivating. She has an assurance and smoothness and effortless velvety voice. All the men are after her, and when they crowd around to dance, she tosses her program into the air and tells them to sign it. She and Danilo had an affair once, and they recount it. She mocks him and says she'll have a laugh when he says he loves her. He retorts with "That's one laugh you won't have." When she throws down her glove he says "Ahh! A declaration of war."

Rodney Gilfry's Danilo is a smug, smooth playboy. He says he just doesn't like can't like everything. When we first meet him he makes a grand entrance at the top of the staircase. He's been partying at Maxim's and staggers drunk down the stairs. He's got almost as many girls hanging on him as Anna has guys around her. As much as he says he wants nothing to do with Anna, you know they were meant for each other.

Act 2 is night in the courtyard at the Pontevedrian Embassy. There are brightly colored revelers native Pontevedrians, which seem a cross of Eastern Europe and Middle East. The Corps de Ballet do a lively folk dance, spinning, clapping, and lifting the ladies high. Jason Graae's Njegus is the perfect foil for the Baron. He's witty, wise, loud, and smug. He mimics the Baron and anyone else, and hides behind a swing taking notes as Danilo questions the women to find out which one is having an affair with Camille. He manages to get each one to tell who they are having an affair with, and they're both incredulous. All of the men get together in an outrageous octet singing about "Why are Women Such a Problem?" with a wink, a smile, or a glance. A man doesn't stand a chance." It's a hilarious, high-kicking chorus line as they come back for a slapstick encore while the audience claps in time.

Danilo and Anna do a Pontevedrian folk dance that they did when they were young. He tells how he's jealous of all the old women for the all fun they'd had, and all the young women for all the fun they're about to have.

The Third Act is at Maxim's. It's red, with mirrors for the side walls that are sensuous but not lewd. The Maitre d'hotel does a little jump step when he walks. By this point in the show, everyone's overacting and it's getting quite out of hand, but a lot of fun. Njegus murders the French language and flirts with a girl. He tells her he likes her can-can, and maybe later she will-will. She slaps him. He's got his five back up, boys who do a two step. The Grisettes do a great can-can as they sing of how they capture men.

Danilo appears and all the Grisettes jump on him, flirting. He wants to be alone with Anna, and she with him. She bribes the Maitre'd to clear the place out. Then he and the Baron secretly add to the bribe. Anna and Danilo sing of their loves but he still can't do it because of her 50 million between them. The Baron proposes to her and she says she must forfeit all her money if she remarries. Danilo jumps in and now he can love her now that she's broke. She says if she remarries all her money belongs to her husband and he lets out a Yee Ha! as this frothy episode comes to it's climax.

John Demain leads the orchestra in Lotfi Mansouri's hugely entertaining "The Merry Widow" at The L. A. Opera.



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