Composer: Franz Lehar
English Lyrics: Richard Thomas
English Book: April de Angelis
Director: Max Webster
Conductor: Kristiina Poska
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In a show that purposefully sets out to celebrate the resourceful and determination of women, it is in the orchestra pit that the real star of Max Webster’s new take on The Merry Widow resides. Kristiina Poska is still that all-to-rare thing, a female conductor whose extensive experience across Europe finally brings her to the UK to head the English National Opera’s new production at the Coliseum. While the music of Franz Lehar soars under her guidance, the onstage antics are much more variable.
With his nation facing bankruptcy, Baron Zeta throws a cut-price party at the Parisian Embassy in order to attract the recently widowed heiress Hanna Glawari who he plans to marry-off to one of his countrymen. The only available match is the louche Danilo who, unbeknownst to Zeta, had an earlier relationship with Hanna from which neither ever recovered. The reunion of the warring lovers unveils an Embassy embroiled in adulterous scandal, including Zeta’s own wife.
First performed in 1905, The Merry Widow is an incredibly popular operetta and this new staging holds plenty of promise. Echoing Goldfinger with a gold-painted woman on the poster, Webster’s debut show for the ENO pays considerable attention to design and staging, using the musical traditions that Lehar later inspired as the basis for this flamboyant mixture of styles.
Across Acts situated in three entirely separate locations, Set Designer Ben Stones has done a very fine job creating the faded grandeur of an embassy building, Hanna’s garden party and the Moulin-Rouge-inspired club Chez Maxim where the story concludes. Act II in particular is a magical fantasy, with a classical curved veranda overlooking a moonlight night created with layered drapes and hanging stars. Supported by Costume Designer Esther Bialas, the overall aesthetic is somewhere between My Fair Lady and Oscar Wilde, along with a moment of The Nutcracker and the occasional dab of cabaret and vaudeville, while the leading lady is scandalously modern in corseted silver and shocking pink.
The show begins with a slapstick interpretation of the crumbling Pontevedrin state with bannisters that give way, tumbling waiters and trolleys of spam wheeled into the dining room. The biggest cheer (with an in-show encore) is for a front of stage sequence set at the men’s urinals about female power, an extended toilet gag with plenty of bobbing and spraying which has the audience clapping along. Book writer April De Angelis, lyricist Richard Thomas and Webster have created a light farce, full of larger-than-life characters and dramatic exclamations, but, with the introduction of the two love stories that veer wildly from jaunty charade to sentiment and pathos, the tone never quite settles.
Nathan Gunn’s Danilo has a feel of Louis Jourdan while Sarah Tynan’s sometimes brassy / sometimes classy Hanna never really convince as former or future companions. They both sing beautifully but Gunn has the best of the action, performing emotive tunes including “I’ll Miss You” with all the grace of a classic musical hero, while also believably taking his character from derision to infatuation in his acting performance. Tynan is an opera singer of considerable charm – her solo lowered from the sky on a half moon is charming – but her acting is stilted and unvarying, her Hanna only ever coquettish or conceited, never credibly in love with the man she supposedly sacrifices her freedom for.
The supporting cast fares better and the secondary affair between Rhian Lois’ Valencienne and Robert Murray’s Camille is full of passion, fear and genuine sadness that they must deny their feelings. Its comic silliness in Act I evolves into something much more engaging by Act III as Murray delivers a meaningful love song to his mistress. As the unknowingly cuckolded husband, Andrew Shore has plenty of likeable bluster as Zeta and develops an enjoyably comic partnership with Gerard Carey’s Embassy Clerk Njegus.
Webster’s production trumpets its female empowerment credentials throughout the show, yet with marriage as the end goal all round, Valencienne denied a truly happy ending and Hanna reduced to a male-fantasy figure in stockings and suspenders to finally get her man, it’s not always easy to see how these contemporary feminist sensibilities fit with what we see on stage. Beautiful to look at but where The Merry Widow is most modern is in the orchestra pit.
Runs until: 13 April 2019 | Image: Contributed