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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.

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