Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

03 Mar 2019

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

The Merry Widow, English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Tynan (Hanna) and ENO cast

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

In an age of Brexit, Trump and #MeToo, one doesn’t have to work too hard to see how Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow - so often seen as a metaphor for the escapist glamour of the Belle Époque - might seem relevant to modern times, as we waltz towards the cliff-edge. And, the new English book and lyrics by April De Angelis and Richard Thomas respectively, which this new ENO production employs, do indeed offer a smattering of topical and pseudo-subversive gestures, at least in the opening Act. The Counsellor to Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevidrin Ambassador in Paris, drily notes that their country’s government is one that no other nation will do business with, raising sniggers and sighs among the Brexit-weary Brits in the audience. Our prototype feminist heroine is a Cockney lass (her drawl slightly at odds with the Americanisms in the lyrics), and it’s certainly the women who hold the purse and the power: even the grisettes who perform at Maxim’s grumble as they gyrate, and sport silver boots with attitude.

Nathan Gunn Act 3.jpgNathan Gunn (Danilo). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

However, as Edmond Taylor observed in The Fall of The Dynasties: The Collapse Of The Old Order, 1905-1922 , ‘In retrospect we tend to see the carefree social life of pre-war Europe as a kind of death waltz on the brink of doom, but to those who took part in it, it was not that at all. People did not throw themselves into a rout of pleasures to forget their worries; they simply joined in the dance to express their sense of well-being and to manifest their solidarity.’ And, it’s not really the ‘topicality’ of Max Webster’s production that strikes one, but its ‘theatricality’: this is a stagey and sumptuous broad comedy that will please the crowd rather than challenge the old order.

Act 3 Maxim.jpgAt Maxim’s, Act 3. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The show is certainly colourful, glitzy and pacy, lavishly rendered by designers Ben Stones (sets), Bruno Poet (lighting) and Esther Bialas (costumes). The décor at Maxim’s is more Toulouse Lautrec than Art Nouveau and riotous razzamatazz is provided by an ensemble of eleven dancers who can-can with panache (choreography by Lizzi Gee). Moreover, if Maxim’s has morphed into the Moulin Rouge then Hanna has had a ‘Howard Hawks make-over’ and borrows Marilyn Monroe’s iconic pink gown for her staircase entrance, flanked by tuxedoed suitors.

Beavers.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

The flashy ostentation is complemented by slick farce, which commences in the overture as the clerk Njegus (Gerard Corey) ‘oversees’ preparations for the Embassy banquet with masterly timed slapstick buffoonery worthy of The Play That Goes Wrong. With an outsize beaver gazing down from a wall-mounted pictorial homage to the Pontevdrin national animal, the tone is set for the Act 2 party at Hanna’s, where the celebrations of the country’s historic cultural traditions are supplemented by two dancing, grinning beavers who would do Walt Disney proud. After an assignation in a broom cupboard - we’re in the realm of 1970s sit-com here - the Baron’s wife, Valencienne, carries on her liaison with the French attaché to the Embassy, Count Camille de Rosillon, not in the garden pavilion as expected, but under the banquet table, their not-so-covert amorous activities accompanied by quivering jellies and rattling cutlery. The double entendres fly as thick and fast as the toilet humour: we all know what happens when the proverbial hits the fan. Indeed, the men gather to lament and denounce ‘Women! Women! Women!’ in the urinals, literally ‘spraying’ their insults in all directions.

Nicholas Lester; Adam Sullivan; Jamie MacDougall; Nathan Gunn; Andrew Shore; Paul Sheehan .jpg Men’s septet. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

It’s all jolly fun, if at times rather too flippant. However, the Coliseum is a big barn in which to ensure that the minutiae of the mayhem make their mark, and despite the amplification of the spoken text (which didn’t always fade successfully into the sung numbers) there were times when the voices and the verbal keenness didn’t quite carry. Ironically, the initial froth of the orchestral overture and the flashiness of the cerise front-curtain fade to a cool grey-green when we enter the Embassy, for ‘austerity cutbacks’ mean that the central-heating is off and there’s no food for the feast. Later this summer ENO will reprise last year’s Paul Bunyan at the Alexander Palace Theatre, and it struck me that either this, or Wilton’s Music Hall where that production was first seen, would more readily provide the necessary shabby chic ambience, in a setting of more appropriate dimensions.

Tynan moon Act 2.jpgSarah Tynan (Hanna). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

That said, the first and principal prerequisite for a successful Merry Widow is glamour and allure in the title role, and Sarah Tynan provided the necessary flirtatious fascination demanded of her, alongside comic nous and some impressive dance skills. She also provided a much-needed moment of respite from the frantic antics, bravely perching upon a floating crescent moon to sing her ‘Vilja’ and out-gleaming its beams with silvery threads which ebbed and waned with exquisite care and control, and with bitter-sweet beauty. As her somewhat jaded paramour, Count Danilo Danilowitsch, Nathan Gunn mixed a dash of debonair with a dose of dorkiness, but while he projected well in the Coliseum, I lacked a sense of true chemistry between this Danilo and Hanna. The same was true for Rhian Lois’s Valencienne and Robert Murray’s Camille: their duets were well-sung, but it felt as if they were acting rather than feeling the professed emotions. Andrew Shore, as always, judged the Baron’s myopic folly to a tee, never mocking him too cruelly. The Chorus were in fine voice.

Tynan and Shore.jpgSarah Tynan (Hanna) and Andrew Shore (Baron Mirko Zeta). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

This production may have the girls, the glamour and the grandeur but if The Merry Widow is to truly touch our hearts, then it’s the symbolism of the waltz - an intimate interaction between two interdependent individuals, wordless and private - which must make an impact. After all, it is only through music and dance that Danilo finds a way to ‘speak’ to Hanna of his love. I’m not convinced that Webster communicates this intimacy, though conductor Kristiina Poska certainly drew stylish, sumptuous and lithe playing from the ENO Orchestra.

Murray and Lois.jpgRobert Murray (Camille) and Rhian Lois (Valencienne). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Franz Lehár had already achieved some success and popularity, with waltzes and operettas, before Die lustige Witwe became the most widely performed operetta ever, acclaimed across Europe and in the US. This ENO production might not be quite such a triumph: the first 1906 London production ran for 778 performance, and followed by extensive tours, in places as distant as Calcutta and Rangoon. But, it will bring much enjoyment to audiences at the Coliseum. Moreover, stage and sheet-music royalties quickly made Lehár a multi-millionaire; let’s hope it has the same effect on ENO’s coffers.

Claire Seymour

Franz Lehár: The Merry Widow

Hanna Glawari - Sarah Tynan, Count Danilo Danilowitsch - Nathan Gunn, Baron Mirko Zeta - Andrew Shore, Camille de Rosillon - Robert Murray, Valencienne - Rhian Lois, Vicomte Cascada - Nicholas Lester, Raoul de St Brioche - Jamie MacDougall, Njegus - Gerard Carey, Bogdanowitsch - Paul Sheehan, Sylviane - Lydia Marchione, Kromow - Adam Sullivan, Olga - Deborah Davison, Pritschitsch - Trevor Eliot Bowes, Praskowia - Natalie Herman’; Director - Max Webster, Conductor - Kristiina Poska, Set designer - Ben Stones, Costume designer - Esther Bialas, Lighting designer - Bruno Poet, Choreographer - Lizzi Gee, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Friday 1st March 2019.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):