ATHENS – Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow by any other name is just as sweet, and that was proven at its premier as Ευθημη Χηρα at the packed Olympia City Music Theater – Maria Callas by the wonderful cast who joined the Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of the Municipality of Athens on December 7.
The simple plot with intricate twists set in the Paris of La Belle Epoque is borne aloft by one memorable aria, duet, and choral performance after another. Baron Zeta (Vangelis Maniatis) is the ambassador the Balkan nation of Pontevedro. The poverty stricken country is sustained by the wealth of recently widowed Anna Glawari (Despina Skarlatou ), and Zeta has a do-or-die mission to make sure she does not marry a foreigner. His secret weapon is the seductive arts and resonant tenor voice of Danilo (Ioannis Kalivas) but while the Count and the Merry Widow are in love, a lot of champagne and intoxicating Lehar music must flow until ego and rivals are overcome.
The most dangerous and charming plotter is Zeta’s own wife, Valencienne (Katia Paschou), resplendent in a pistachio gown as guests gather for a Ball at the embassy. The comedy set to divine music begins with the guests at a fever pitch awaiting Anna, who arrives…in a black cloak, on white steed sitting down, with living flame the color of her gown – and streaming hair.
The sopranos trail suitors, matching one another in charm and music, breath by breath and note by note. Finally, a tipsy Danilo arrives from the renowned nightclub Maxim’s – where he would rather be and where the operetta concludes – a bottle of champagne in hand and Parisian cuties in silk stockings in tow.
The cast excelled musically and dramatically – audiences often get one but not the other – sustained by the excellence of the orchestra directed by Zoe Zeniodi without a baton, ala Dimitri Mitropoulos, at times seeming to dance along with the music, her hands graceful but decisive. Half the performances will be conducted by Eleni Kotsamanidou.
The corps de ballet added rhythm and movement to the musical palette – the “butterfly cupid” delighting the audience as she did her best to engineer the love that would ultimately save the day. The simple sets also lent their charm, Act II opening with a backdrop of a colorful burst of flowers and trees.
The costumes also changed color while Lehar’s music continued to enchant. Skarlatou’s voice and gown crowned her solo paean to eros and true love – it’s Paris, so the dream dies hard – a motion seconded by the poignant duet marking the last moments together of the secret lovers performed by Nikos Stefanou and Paschou, her now golden raiment and rich soprano ironically commenting on Valencienne’s soon to be impoverished heart.
Notes of sadness cannot be sustained in a Lehar production, however, and soon the dazzling scene at Maxim’s lights the torch for the brilliant love that fires the title of the operetta.
Kudos and applause were earned by all who contributed to the success of the production – the first time it was staged by the Municipality of Athens according to Natasa Kalaitsidou, a member of the chorus who emphasized the dedication of all who participated in two months of rehearsals.
The translation was by Isidoros Sideris, who was also the Director, and Anthe Ntaountaki.