Philharmonia Orchestra/John Wilson – Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow – Operetta in three acts to a libretto by Victor Léon & Leo Stein after a play by Henri Meilhac [concert performance; sung in English translation by Christopher Hassall]

Hanna Glawari – Claudia Boyle
Count Danilo – Daniel Prohaska
Baron Mirko Zeta – Alan Opie
Valencienne – Sarah Tynan
Camille – Nicholas Sharratt
Njegus – Simon Butteriss

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
John Wilson

Simon Butteriss – Director

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 2 December, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

John Wilson. Photograph: BBCPacked with hummable tunes and an infectious effervescence, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow is the product of a grim financial period in Austrian history, its initial popularity due to its audiences’ desire to forget their troubles. Our own current depression is not nearly as bad, of course, but many of us feel the need to let our hair down – at any rate, the Royal Festival Hall was full for this Sunday-afternoon semi-staged performance, sung in Christopher Hassall’s English translation.

The spoken dialogue was replaced by a new narration by Simon Butteriss, which he delivered in the character of Embassy Secretary Njegus with his customary flamboyance and panache. Witty and clever, with knowing nods to the present day, his links provided succinct summaries of the plot – no mean feat – as well as being entertaining. He began by reminding us how the story, like most Viennese operettas of the time, reflects an overarching preoccupation with money, describing The Merry Widow as the fictional Pontevedro’s Gross Domestic Product, and hoping with ill-placed optimism that 1906 was going to see financial upturn for Europe – he had “just been tipped the wink by the Greek ambassador.” Butteriss had only one song – a lively music-hall-style number, given outrageously camp lyrics by Jeremy Sams. It brought the house down, and showed up the rest of the cast as lesser stage animals. His only rival was Alan Opie, whose distinguished baritone voice, strong presence and gift for comedy made the most of the role of Baron Mirko Zeta.

The other star of the show was the Philharmonia Orchestra. Under the masterful conducting of John Wilson, the players oozed authentic Viennese élan, charm and brilliance. It was a joy to hear Lehár’s sumptuous full orchestration rendered so lovingly and so incisively etched – at least in Act One. Unfortunately, the acoustic balance was destroyed in Acts Two and Three with hideously artificial-sounding amplification on the principal singers. In Act One they had occasionally struggled to carry over the orchestra, but the voices were always audible and there were surtitles to enable the text to be followed. The amplification in the remaining Acts (played continuously as a long second half) was a disaster – writing off the whole experience.

The four main principals gave decent, well-sung performances, but a lack of maturity or affinity for the idiom meant they failed to make much impact. The semi-staging, directed by Butteriss, took place at the front of the concert platform, in costume – mainly evening tails and in-period ball gowns. The most elaborate choreography was for a barnstorming male septet which culminated with a smile-inducing kick-dance. Such periodic flashes of razzle-dazzle were welcome, but they ultimately failed to overcome the grave disappointment of the horrible and unnecessary vocal amplification, without which this might have been a delightful and memorable performance.

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