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

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

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):