Writer: Music by Franz Lehár
Book/Lyrics: Victor Léon and Leo Stein
Adaptor: Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Giles Havergala
Director: Giles Havergal
Conductor: Martin Andre
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
For their current visit to The Lowry opera North seem to have discovered relevance. A highly contemporary interpretation of Tosca is followed by a sharply up-to-date adaptation of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Giles Havergal.
Hanna Glawari( Katie Bird) is a widow who has good reason to be merry – the wealth she inherited from her late husband is so great that, if she re-marries outside of her homeland of Pontevedro , the tiny kingdom will go bankrupt. Count Danilo (Quirijn de Lang) is encouraged by his countrymen to marry the widow and so ensure security for the nation but there is a problem. Hanna and Danilo were once in love but he was compelled to break off the relationship as she was considered beneath his station. If things weren’t complicated enough an indiscretion between former can-can dancer Valencienne (Gillene Butterfield) and her lover Camille (Nicholas Watts) leads to misunderstandings that could destabilise a number of marriages.
The plot of The Merry Widow is complex and the production benefits from vivid and clear direction from Giles Havergal (who also contributed to the adaptation). Typical of a show in which no time is wasted the aborted courtship between Hanna and Danilo is portrayed wordlessly as the overture plays.
The Merry Widow is an operetta with lengthy spoken passages and is performed in English. It is possible, therefore, to appreciate the many topical references and in-jokes in Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Giles Havergal’s loose adaptation. References are made to Oligarchs and the vulnerability of banks and no-one speaks well of the French.
Even when the music is in full swing the topical references continue. Franz Lehár’s score is in the waltz style and the ‘ladies choice’ sequence draws parallels to women’s suffrage. The operetta includes a dance from the chorus girls at Maxim’s and, to ensure equality, the men, in full dinner suits and military uniforms, also form a high-kicking chorus line. Being of a certain age they have to threaten the orchestra to prevent an encore starting.
Katie Bird and Quirijn de Lang make an excellent pair of mismatched lovers. Bird plays Hanna as down-to-earth and confident while de Lang shows how the termination of the love affair impacted on Count Danilo by turning him shallow and incapable of commitment. The vivacious Gillene Butterfield comes close to stealing the show with her conflicted Valencienne.
Yet the strength of the production comes from the ensemble performance. Giles Havergal directs the chorus to great effect- cramming the stage full to ensure a spectacular opening to the second Act or creating a seemingly endless line of suitors along which Hanna must navigate.
This is a sumptuous production with many show-stopping moments; when Hanna makes her entrance it is as a vision in severe black and silver design. The set and costumes designed by Leslie Travers are opulent and ravishing; art nouveau statues holding light globes circle the stage and the cast are dressed in glamorous eveningwear or military uniforms full of medals.
Opera North’s production of The Merry Widow might be topical but is so hilarious and richly designed that it acts as welcome relief to the current confused state of the nation.
Runs until 17 November 2018 | Image: Robert Workman