With a stated intent of reviving the operetta tradition that used to be part of the precursor company when it was housed at Sadler’s Wells, English National Opera has launched a new and glitzy (at least when we get to the residence of the fabulously wealthy Hanna Glawari) Merry Widow, replete with some great choreography including tap-dancing beavers, some slapstick comedy, and also some updating of the book to incorporate digs at political correctness, emotional expression, the advance of the feminist cause and even Brexit.
Max Webster’s production is inventive and cohesive and will surely settle down a little but there was a sense on this opening night that the ensemble was working just a little too hard to keep the pace going; a slightly more relaxed approach would have worked wonders. Operetta is notoriously difficult to bring off successfully for charm must be one of the essential characteristics and just occasionally the drive to provide visual stimuli threatened to undermine this facet.
April de Angelis’s updated book does keep the original story more or less intact, and this English version has some good lyrics by Richard Thomas which the cast manages to get across the footlights with varying degrees of success. It may be that the stage settings bear some responsibility for this, a gilt-framed set, presumably to bring some intimacy and appropriate sense of scale to the proceedings.
Projection was notably better in the first Act where the set has a back wall to bounce the sound forward. Later on, with the expanse of the Coliseum stage open behind, this acoustic help is lost. The singers are amplified to ensure spoken dialogue can be heard, but this is not deftly handled, for there were moments when the microphones picked up singing resulting in some odd spatial effects.
In the pit the ENO Orchestra responds well to Kristiina Poska, who possesses just the right lightness of touch and rhythmic flexibility for this music, catchy and wistful tunes beguiling the ear. It is interesting also to hear the 1940 Overture to the work played, a potpourri of all the best-known tunes, albeit stylistically not quite in keeping with the orchestration of the rest of the piece premiered some thirty-five years earlier.
The Merry Widow relies on the title heroine and in this version Sarah Tynan has even more to do than is usually the case, for the Grisette song, normally sung by the Valencienne, was given to her as well. Tynan is a consummate professional with a supple and silvery-toned voice, glamour, good dancing skills and a performer who can hold a stage even when being still. Her ‘Vilja-lied’ is a bravura demonstration of how to hold an audience, and she’s less playful and more focussed on her ambitions than the Hanna of an old tradition. It works. In contrast Nathan Gunn’s Danilo is a rather more serious creation than the slightly louche roué of convention. Gunn sings the high-lying role very well indeed, every word telling.
Rhian Lois is a very engaging Valencienne, despite losing one of her solo moments, and the additional facet of her character unsure of how to handle her desires against societal norms whilst in the throes of therapy and counselling is a witty addition and the source of some great text. In partnership with her Robert Murray’s heady-sounding tenor is gratefully received, and he manages somehow to register the less-attractive side of Camille as well. In the buffo role of Baron Zeta Andrew Shore is in his extrovert element, even if his voice no longer possesses the tonal bloom of old while Gerard Carey manages the tricky task of integrating his spoken role into the proceedings as Njegus.
Chorus and dancers are central to the whole and mention must be made of the second Act septet, played against a row of urinals, which is a clever routine and will be one of the defining scenes of the staging. With this Merry Widow ENO has a potential hit on its hands.
- Performances until April 13; Martin Fitzpatrick conducts the final three