English National Opera – The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow – Operetta in three acts to original book and lyrics by Victor Léon and Leo Stein after Henri Meilhac’s play L’attaché d’ambassade [Sung in Jeremy Sams’s English translation]

Baron Mirko Zeta – Richard Suart
Valencienne, his wife – Fiona Murphy
Count Danilo Danilowitsch – John Graham-Hall
Hanna Glawari – Amanda Roocroft
Camille de Rosillon – Alfie Boe
Vicomte Cascada – Hal Cazalet
Raoul de St Brioche – Daniel Hoadley
Bogdanowitsch – James Gower
Sylviane, his wife – Mairéad Buicke
Kromow – Simon Butteriss
Olga, his wife – Penelope Beavan
Pritschitsch – Graeme Danby
Praskowia, his wife – Judith Douglas
Njegus – Roy Hudd
Grisettes – Mairéad Buicke, Penelope Beavan, Judith Douglas, Vivien Munday, Suzanne Joyce & Susanna Tudor-Thomas

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Oliver von Dohnányi

John Copley – Director
Tim Reed – Set Designer
Deirdre Clancy – Costume Designer
Howard Harrison – Lighting Designer
Anthony van Laast & Nichola Treherne – Choreographers

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 26 April, 2008
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” is arguably the most performed operetta of them all. Since its first appearance in 1905 in Vienna it has been a continual success, no doubt on account of the composer’s lusciously melodic score. It was an instant success in London and New York and then around the world. In America it set off a fashionable mania for everything connected with it, much like today’s commercial merchandising of pop and rock bands. There have been many film versions including nine ‘silents’, directors including Michael Curtiz and Erich von Stroheim, and sound versions by Ernst Lubitsch with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, for which Lehár himself conducted the music for the trailer, and a 1952 version with Fernando Lamas and Lana Turner, and there are a further dozen or so versions on film and for television. Robert Helpmann choreographed a staging for Australian Ballet and there was also a French television series based on the story. Lehar’s music has been cannibalised by Bartók and Shostakovich and even Alfred Hitchcock used it as a background to his film “Shadow of a Doubt”.

Popular always, yes, but easy to stage, never! In living memory the worst London production was by The Royal Opera during its refurbishment when a version was staged at the Shaftesbury Theatre which was tacky in the extreme and on which every expense had been spared. More recently Welsh National Opera succeeded, where The Royal failed, in its production with Lesley Garrett. Since then both Opera Holland Park and Opera UK successfully staged it, albeit simply but effectively in their own distinctive ways.

Now we have a much-heralded new production by English National Opera. This was to have included a new translation by Sandi Toksvig and Dillie Keane (of Fascinating Aïda) and the director was going to be Jude Kelly but she pulled out for family reasons. No doubt it would have been quite a different show to the one now staged. Veteran director John Copley took over and is using the translation by Jeremy Sams, which he has revised.

The word ‘traditional’ comes to mind when describing the new production. It looks handsome enough in the designs by Tim Reed and the costumes by Deirdre Clancy. Indeed, as the curtain went up, the set received the first of many rounds of applause. If the plot seems a little hoary now with its mixture of Gilbert & Sullivan antics crossed with romantic trysts, we have to remember that this is operetta, a genre that has its own rules. We are dealing in stereotypes where Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian Ambassador in Paris, is a blustering old party open to being duped by his pretty young wife; where a rich young(ish) widow Hanna Glawari is held in awe on account of her inherited wealth; and where cavalry lieutenant Count Danilo is a charming cad who formerly had an affair with said ‘merry widow’. And it all takes place in Paris, the stereotypical place for lovers to meet.

The story is fairly flimsy and exists only to form a background to the colourful spectacle of the grisettes from Maxim’s doing the can-can, and of course Lehár’s gorgeous music. At a reception to welcome Hanna Glawari, Ambassador Baron Zeta must persuade Count Danilo to marry Hanna, to stop her wealth leaving the relatively poor country of Pontevedro. Danilo demurs but on her arrival Hanna heads straight for him and asks him to dance. In a sub-plot Zeta’s wife Valencienne is flirting with Camille de Rosillon, the French attaché who announces his passion for Valencienne by writing his declaration of love on a fan. The second act is set in Hanna’s residence at a party for her Pontevedrian guests. Zeta is worried that Camille is making a play for Hanna but his Embassy Clerk Njegus tells him that, without naming names, Camille is chasing a married woman. After an episode about amorous couples caught compromisingly in a summerhouse that is worthy of the great farceur Feydeau, Danilo says he is going off to enjoy himself with the girls at Maxim’s where the final act is set, which Hanna has had transported to the ballroom of the Pontevedrian Embassy where she manages to convince Danilo that they both still love each other. The curtain comes down after all and sundry has decided once again that men and women will never understand each other. It is farce but the comedy elements are also tinged with comments on the plight of human relationships.

John Copley keeps all this nonsense going in a carefree way with characterisation and exposition neatly integrated with the music and dance elements. In the pit Oliver von Dohnányi elicits the necessarily kitsch sound from the orchestra without turning the music into syrup. The lilting tunes, the waltzes and the high-kicking dance-music all come across with immense warmth and feeling. It’s a pity therefore that Amanda Roocroft in the title role does not make the most of her chances. At first she sings below strength, perhaps saving herself for later and the rather lengthy dialogue passages. She also fails to exhibit charisma in a role that cries out for camp ostentation. Hanna is supposed to be an exciting woman of the world, but Roocroft makes her seem far too modest. By the end of act one the show still lacks an essential sparkle. Matters improve, however, from then on, and she sings ‘Vilja’ with a deal of passion, although she never really inhabits the part to full effect.

John Graham-Hall, on the other hand, seems ideally cast as the raffish Count Danilo, drunken, laid-back hedonist that he is and he musters great panache in his celebration of women and the bottle. He also makes the most of Sams’s translation that rhymes “chantoosies” with “floozies”. Richard Suart’s Baron Zeta is another of this singer’s individualistic portrayals of silly old buffers who could be a cuckold without knowing it. As his wife Valencienne Fiona Murphy has more exuberant merriment than the widow herself. She is well supported by Alfie Boe as Camille de Rosillon who, apart from becoming a little Tauberish at times, is turning out to be a definite asset to ENO. The chorus of grisettes and Pontevedrians add a layer of excitement to the proceedings against the glowing staircase setting in black and gold.In the mainly speaking role of Njegus, comedian Roy Hudd excels at raising the level of the laughs and he is certainly another great asset to the production. He does have one solo number, ‘Très français’, with some of Sams’s best lines and he certainly makes the most of them.

All in all it is a good, serviceable production that should bring a deal of pleasure, even if its leading lady seems far from being the genial dowager of the operetta’s title.

  • The first night was April 24
  • Further performances at 7.30 p.m. on April 29 and May 1, 3 (3 p.m.), 7, 9, 10 (6.30 p.m.), 20, 21, 29 & 30
  • Box Office: 0871 911 0200
  • English National Opera

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