Music: Franz Lehár
Libretto: Victor Léon and Leo Stein
Director: Giles Havergal
Reviewer: Dawn Smallwood
Opera North’s focus for this season is to link the theme of Before War, and After, for the centenary of the end of the First World War. The Merry Widow made its premiere in 1905, at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Vienna. Opera North first performed the Viennese operetta nearly eight years ago, and for this season, it is an eagerly awaited revival.
The Merry Widow is based on Victor Léon and Leo Stein’s French book, L’Attaché d’Ambassade which was initially translated into German and subsequently English. The story is about the chaos in Pontevedro where Stefan Glawari has acquired a large amount of money in the Duchy, only to be left with Hanna Glawari (Máire Flavin), a penniless woman, who became a countess when he suddenly died after marrying her just a week before. The powers to be, particularly Baron Mirko Zeta (Geoffrey Dolton), aren’t happy with the inheritance and are threatened with the possibility of Hanna remarrying a foreigner. Their aim is to remarry her off to a Pontevedrian, so the money can stay in the Duchy, and that the best candidate would be Count Danilo Danilovitch (Quirijn de Lang). The operetta gradually unfolds its plot with complicated relationships, past and present, and with potential suitors; its motives, particularly with the ambassador and the team’s intentions; and how women and wealth are perceived at the time. The operetta questions whether they have Hanna’s best interest at heart or to simply save their kingdom from bankruptcy? Is the determined Hanna looking for true love or will she marry for convenience?
The operetta, set to Lehár’s musical composition, is light-hearted and is interpreted satirically and comically through dialogue, singing and dancing, and reveals interlinking social themes amid the Austro-Hungarian and French influences. The production is very pleasing to the eye with its breathtaking sets and stunning periodic costumes, courtesy of Leslie Travers who is known for his exciting and creative staging around the world. The staging is complemented with Oliver Fenwick’s lighting which gives a palatial feel to empiric high society.
It is felt at some stages in the performance that there were some slight difficulties hearing the lead artists at the very beginning of some songs and surtitles had to be relied on. Also, some of the scene transitions in the latter acts could have been more fluid as they were fairly slow in places. It is most probably be down to the technicalities including the acoustics on the very first night which will surely be addressed at future performances. Needless to say, Opera North has created a charming and enjoyable production, co-ordinated under Stuart Hopps, with wonderful performances from the lead singers and the invaluable support from Chorus of Opera North and its dancers.
The Merry Widow explores how a serious situation could be taken light-heartedly in this operetta. Like many comedies and performances with comedic features, it ends all well. The happy ending is successfully entertained with a curtain call finale with dances and a song. It is refreshingly light and entertaining with reminders of how Europe was, socially and politically, before the First World War.
Reviewed on 29th September 2018 | Images: Robert Workman