Culture | Class divide, bras, and materialistic goods

The Merry Widow draws parallels of capitalistic ideals

On February 12, the McGill Savoy Society launched its contemporary rendition of Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow, ending its run on February 20. Revolving around a love story between Anna Glawari (Ana Toumine) and Count Danilo Danilovitch (Bruno Roy), the narrative is filled with unexpected twists. It is revealed early on that Glawari and Count Danilovitch have a romantic history and are forced to split, due to Glawari’s lower economic class. Since their split, Glawari has gone on to marry a very wealthy banker whose death has left her with millions. The play begins with its fictional country on the verge of bankruptcy, and with Baron Mirko Zeta (Jonah Spungin) insisting that Danilovitch must woo Glawari and convince her to marry him in order to gain her riches.

The Merry Widow’s commentary on the value of materialistic goods in an unequal society is one that resonates with a modern audience. Keeping Glawari’s wealth is the sole goal of Zeta, who is convinced that this is his duty as a national. While Zeta is neglecting human feelings to enrich himself, Zeta’s wife Valencienne (Allegra Johnston) is having an affair provoked by his lack of attention to her. Exaggerating the passion for affluent living even more, two French suitors Vicomte Cascada (Xavier Gervais-Dumont) and St. Brioche (Didier Blach-Laflèche) dramatically fight each other for Glawari’s love, while both acknowledging that they are compelled by the millions the woman possesses.

Savoy’s production of this story was infused with rich musical talent. Glawari and Count Danilovitch, expressed wonderful onstage chemistry in their harmonies. This was significant as their affection is vital to the operetta, showing the audience that they are willing to give up riches and titles for love. The show-stealing performance comes from Lindsay Peets in her role of Kromow. Peets’s presence was felt even when not the centre of attention. Her challenge of performing as one of the few non-singing actors in The Merry Widow is further enhanced by playing a male part in the operetta.

The show’s director, Russell Wustenberg, adheres to the various political messages in The Merry Widow to preserve the original intention of the work. Conversations of class and gender roles inform the storyline of a fierce pursuit of money. Wustenberg provokes the audience’s reactions by portraying Glawari as a woman who lacks a distinct voice to decide her own fate in a world filled with contempt and disguise. Danilovitch, meanwhile, is unable to say “I love you,” as it might threaten his manhood and control in the couple’s relationship.

Developing the theme of imposed gender roles and inequality, Wustenberg devotes a song to celebrating women’s rights, with female characters marching the stage and holding picket signs, umbrellas and bras. Bringing the image of women’s strikes to the forefront leaves the audience to ponder the struggle and need for women’s empowerment in our patriarchal society.

In addition to the overt focus on gender inequality, the operetta demonstrates the operations of class dynamics as well. Despite being set roughly in the 1910s as inferred from the costume design and set choices, the theme is one that still rings true to today. The widow, once rejected on the basis of her low economic class, now struggles to find love while skillfully dodging the suitors who throw themselves at her money. The play ends with Glawari proclaiming her dead husband’s wealth would be stripped from her should she marry again.

Nevertheless, The Merry Widow’s ending is a happy one since Glawari and Danilovitch are willing to have less as long as they can be together. The finale leaves a strong message for modern viewers predisposed toward capitalistic ideals. No less powerful was the operetta’s brilliant set design and fantastic live orchestra, with the students showcasing their acting talents and impressive voices.