Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Merry Widow @ Coliseum, London

26 April - 30 May 2008

The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow (Photo: Clive Barda)

With kitschy dance numbers, catchy tunes and lashings of joie de vivre, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow is the Knickerbocker Glory of the music world. It’s too much to stomach for some, and modern detractors always like to note Hitler’s apparent fondness for the piece, but the operetta proved an immediate hit in 1905 and, judging from the packed-out premiere of ENO’s new production, its popularity remains undimmed.

Although publicity hinted that director John Copley (a late replacement for Jude Kelly) had been inspired by silver-screen versions of the story, his setting seems conventional enough: the glitz and glamour of late-nineteenth-century Paris. It may be unashamedly camp, veering towards pantomime at times, especially in the rapport that Richard Stuart’s doddery Baron Zeta has with his diplomatic cronies, but never resorts to tastelessness or cheap farce. Perhaps inevitably, the jollity of the crowd and chorus numbers makes more intimate scenes seem lacklustre by comparison, but the long sections of spoken dialogue offer great comic potential and Jeremy Sams’ revised translation, sprinkled with Franglais favourites, includes some great gags and a number of quite startling double entendres.

The title role has a reputation for attracting the more how shall we put it mature soprano, but Amanda Roocroft, making her role debut, is luxuriously cast. She makes a fabulous entrance, slinking onto the stage with a black feather boa on one arm and a lapdog on the other, and although her dramatic delivery is a little brittle at times, she seems well suited to the part. Musically speaking, she is surprisingly reserved to begin with but loosens up in time for the all-important ‘Vilja’ aria, which shows off vocals that are rich in the middle register, and refined and glossy high up.

John Graham-Hall makes a superb Count Danilo, caddish and charismatic, and excellently sung, while Alfie Boe impresses as Camille, despite being let down by Fiona Murphy, who sings the role of Valencienne prettily enough but is stiff and awkward dramatically.

Occasionally Tim Reed’s extravagant set designs clash with Dierdre Clancy’s candy-coloured costumes, but the embassy and garden scenes are well conceived, and he conveys a sense of Maxim’s seedy opulence brilliantly with walls of ruched velvet and floor-to-ceiling streamers. Anthony van Laast and Nichola Treherne quicken the theatrical pace with their lavishly choreographed interludes, which range from elegant Viennese waltzes to folkish ensemble pieces and saucy burlesque. And again the highlight comes in the final scene, when Njegus (played by veteran showman Roy Hudd) bursts into ‘Très très très, Français’ amidst a flurry of Tricolores, and shimmies, à la Bruce Forsyth, with a line of girls on each arm.

Whilst the music may be characterised by a certain frivolity one couldn’t dismiss Lehár’s score as insubstantial: the orchestra swells to almost Straussian proportions, with a fine percussion outfit, and blasts out a jukebox mix of waltz, mazurka, can-can and polonaise. In the wrong hands it can seem excessive, or even vulgar, but Oliver von Dohnnyi commands these forces with subtle control and a lightness of touch.

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