It was publicized as "the Dom Perignon of champagne operettas," and Saturday's performance of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" by the Czech Opera Prague lived up to the billing. Bright costumes, lively dancing and an excellent orchestra conducted by Martin Mazik complemented the vocal efforts of the cast, with timing so brisk that the intermission came as a surprise. Familiar tunes pleased the near-capacity audience, such as the lovely ballad "Vilja" and "Love Unspoken, Faith Unbroken" (better known as the "Merry Widow Waltz").
The cast of capable singers was easily topped by soprano Christin Molnar as Hanna in the title role; her luscious tones and effortless delivery kept the audience always waiting for her next song. She was equally at ease throughout her range and showed wonderful control in pianissimo passages in the upper register. Molnar also played her role convincingly, with exactly the blend of independence, impatience and emotional resourcefulness for which the part calls.
Snejana Dramcheva as the flirtatious Valencienne was an audience favorite as well, her lighter soprano handling the vocal role well while her frisky acting enlivened every scene. Alternately betraying and reassuring her husband, she played the part with a fine nervous edge and showed a talent for dancing as well, especially as the fourth Grisette in Act 3.
The ambassador Baron Zeta was played with comic aplomb by Hristo Sarafov, sliding easily from imperious command to pathetic confusion as diplomatic and marital events spun out of control. His droll delivery, especially in comic interludes with his factotum Njegus, kept the audience amused.
The Bulgarian tenor Gueorgui Dinev owned the role of Njegus, the "dolosus servus," or tricky servant, always one step ahead of his master. Dinev appeared with this company at the Lied two years ago as Frosch in "Die Fledermaus," and then as now showed his mastery of the comic idiom.
The role of Count Danilo was played by Orlin Goranov, whose biography was absent from the program. He managed the Count's dissolute swagger rather well, while his voice in the part was competent if not distinguished.
Choral work was robust throughout, and in the second and third acts a seven-member men's chorus sang two rollicking numbers, complete with a dancing kick line. Equally spirited but much more accomplished dancing skill was shown by the Grisettes in their third-act cancan, joined by Valencienne (Dramcheva).
The opera was performed in German with English supertitles, which were less helpful than usual with the Czech Opera Prague. Though not every word of dialogue can be represented, extended speeches were sometimes spoken with no translation offered; and in many cases the supertitles were not synchronized with the dialogue being spoken, producing an odd aphasic effect for those trying to follow the spoken German.
Good costuming enhanced the show, with the women in cream and pink silken ball gowns, the men in tails. Christin Molnar made an impressive entrance in Act 2 in an elegantly simple Pontevedrin native costume with fillet.
Curtain calls were enthusiastically received as the cast, joined by director and costume designer Martin Otava, coped nicely with a comically malfunctioning curtain that stopped a few feet off the floor.