The Merry Widow – Opera/UK

The Merry Widow [Sung in an English translation by Jane McCulloch]

Baron Zeta – Martin Lamb
Kromov – Geoffrey Strum
St Brioche – Nicholas Lester
Viscount Cascada – Edmund Connolly
Camille de Rosillon – Jim Heath
Valencienne – Thomasin Trezise
Prascovia – Nicola Wydenbach
Sylvia – Nicola Pulford
Olga – Melanie Lodge
Njegus – Gregory Cox
Hanna Glawari – Pamela Hay
Count Danilo Danilovitch – John Lofthouse
Lolo – Natasha Lamper
Dodo – Amy Stacy
Joujou – Abi Newberry
Froufrou – Maddy Gerosa
CloClo – Kate Willis
Margot – Sarah Mardel

Chorus and Orchestra of Opera/UK
Stephen Hose

Jane McCulloch – Director
Donna Berlin – Choreography
Cleo Pettit – Set design
Michael O’Connor – Costumes
Guy Hoare – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 11 October, 2006
Venue: UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, London, WC1

photographer:BENJAMIN EALOVEGA - Thomasin Tresize as Valencienne and Jim Heath as Camille de Rosillon in Jane McCulloch's new production of Lehár's The Merry Widow for Opera UKFranz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow”, once one of the staples of the mainstream operetta repertoire is not now revived that often, at least in the UK. This is a pity as it has good tunes in abundance offering both orchestral players, singers and dancers ample opportunities to show their skills in a confection that is as light as one could wish for when performed in a manner that is true to the piece itself.

And whatever might be said about Opera/UK’s production at the Bloomsbury Theatre its staging is pleasantly straightforward, devoid of ‘chocolate box’ sets and clutter, and presents the story, which is no sillier that any other operetta plot of its kind, in an admirably clear way.

Despite the smallish stage there was seldom a feeling that it was overcrowded, nor indeed underused. The stage designs, beautifully lit, were simple and effective, the re-decoration of Hanna’s garden into a replica Maxim’s Restaurant during the entr’acte between the final acts stylishly managed. And one of the advantages of the smaller space was that words could be heard, particularly as the diction of the whole cast was very fine, and allowed Jane McCulloch’s amusing and evidently very singable translation to be heard.

photographer:BENJAMIN EALOVEGA - Pamela Hay as Hanna Glawari and John Lofthouse as Danilo Danilovitch in Jane McCulloch's new production of Lehár's The Merry Widow for Opera UKHer direction of the characters was also very fine and some of the great moments of the score had complementary stage business to match – most memorably when Hanna announced her intention to marry Camille, producing different reactions in the five protagonists – all lined up at the front edge of the stage so the audience could see them.

Some of the numbers, though not all, were given choreography that only occasionally ventured over the line into a more modern style. The folk dances, an integral part of the score, were all nicely done, and it was impressive that so many of the principals engaged in this.

Several individual performances stood out as being very polished. Martin Lamb brought the pompous Pontevedrian Ambassador to life, and was a focus whenever on stage – perhaps too much so. He does not have so much to sing but what he had was delivered in a solid bass-baritone. Mention should also be made of Gregory Cox’s Njegus, an important speaking role, who stage-managed the intrigue and the set-changes with aplomb.

Of course the action really centres on the two main couples Danilo and Hanna, and Camille and Valencienne. The latter pair acted very well together, the characters showing a genuine love for each other in their not-so-secret affair which was obviously causing her more pain and concern than he. Vocally Thomasin Trezise’s Valencienne probably stole the vocal honours. It’s a lovely creamy mezzo-ish voice, well coloured and projected, and at times one wished she was singing the title role. If she seemed less happy as an extrovert Grisette in the last act, she still delivered her routine with aplomb. As her admirer Jim Heath also acted and sang his part well, but his voice, though it has all the high notes in its armoury, does not fall that mellifluously on the ear, and can sometimes develop a bit of an edge. Nonetheless, it was a solid performance.

The operetta does rely very heavily on its main love interest – and here again the stage dynamic between Pamela Hay’s knowing Hanna and John Lofthouse’s bluff Danilo was strong – perhaps more so in their dialogue than in their singing. She has a strong elegant stage presence and knows how to deliver a comic line. He was easy bonhomie with a heart and with humour – his demonstration of a Pontevedrian dance got a deserved round of applause. Hay’s voice ultimately lacks the full-bodied sound of an ideal ‘Merry Widow’, and under pressure she sometimes seemed nervous and to lose pitch slightly. This was particularly evident in the famous ‘Vilja-lied’ which, though a simple tune, is notoriously hard to pull off with the artlessness it requires. Here, Hay looked a little ill at ease, and one felt that all her colleagues were willing her on a bit – they did not seem to be enjoying her song as much as they should! She seemed happier in the more lyrical stretches of the score. What she does manage well however is speech through music – part of a true operetta singer’s art. It always seemed to flow naturally and turned into singing with ease.

Lofthouse’s Danilo was vocally stronger; his voice has a nice solid top to it, a pre-requisite for a successful interpretation (the role is pitched very high for a baritone and is often sung by tenors on recordings). Occasionally in the alternating spoken/sung moments he did not manage the transitions as well as Hay did hers, and his singing thus appeared a little blustery. But it was a rounded portrayal or the character.

Under Stephen Hose the orchestra delivered a performance that improved as the evening progressed. The folk dances had colour and verve, and that famous slow waltz had a lovely lilt to it. In general the musicians seemed happier with the more lyrical moments than the rapid ones, but only occasionally was there a need for a greater number of players and a fuller sound.

Given some of the dire performances by some of the national companies of late (including Welsh National Opera’s best-forgotten production of this piece), it was good to see an operetta presented with such integrity.

Opera/UK should build on this promising start and plug this gap in the market.

  • Opera UK
  • Further performances of The Merry Widow on 13, 17, 19 & 21 October
  • UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, London, WC1 0AH (020 7388 8822)
  • Bloomsbury Theatre

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