Welsh National Opera has brought Franz Lehár’s bittersweet operetta to life in a visually stunning but overall vocally uneventful performance. The directors and producers cruelly juxtapose world-class singing talent with timid proletarian voices, superb comic acting with pathetic amdram actors, and amazing period couture costumes with drab, miserable performers. This was a mediocre show interspersed with the impressive vocal talents of Lesley Garrett and Ailish Tynan, whose power and conviction was constantly undermined by the many flaws of this production.
The orchestra was in perfect form, capturing the wild free spirit of Lehár’s composition and ensuring a vitality and youthfulness to the piece. These elements were also retained by the stunning sets and costumes, which truly brought to life on the stage the decadent Belle Époque. However, the production as a whole failed to hit the spot.
Lesley Garrett plays Hanna Glawari, the filthy-rich widow being pursued by penniless French dandies and by her home country of Pontevedro, which needs her wealth to stay within the country to keep its economy stable. In this role she both excels and fails. Her singing was astounding and in the famous aria Vilja she managed not to standardise its sound, but there is a general consensus that her voice is beginning to fade and this was certainly felt as it lacked the sparkle and youthfulness of younger sopranos.
Garrett’s acting talents were also less than desirable, as she failed to shake off the loud and busty Northern charm for which she is renowned. The Merry Widow is a comedy but to make it more than just a piece of cheap one-liners and show-tunes, there has to be an element of drama and pathos in the production; through song this is achieved to a point but through dialogue it never came close.
The other great failing of this production was the poor quality of the chorus and supporting artists. Ex-Royal Opera Young Artist Ailish Tynan as Valencienne was the exception to this as she achieved the dramatic and comic highs and lows essential in this part, but her onstage lover Camille de Rosillon, played by Tracey Welborn, was responsible for a spectacle of mumbled lines and inaudible songs.
Jeffrey Black as Danilo was frustrating because whilst on stage with Garrett he excelled, but on his own or with other artists he seemed flat and uninspired. He did achieve a certain charm though, and in his first appearance as the drunken womaniser, he had the theatre in hysterics. Comedy was also an obvious forté of Geoffrey Dolton who played the servant and messenger Njegus. He was witty, lucid and had perfect comic timing that made him a riot to watch.
Touring with such an involved piece of operetta must be tiring but energy needs to be kept in the production. WNO’s offering is frustrating because it succeeds and fails on so many levels. The quality and ability of the singers ranged too far and this was not helped by a translated libretto, whose passages of spoken dialogue were too long and in places too dull. Garrett proved to be the talented singer we expected but frays are appearing in her flair and her flaws were extended by a cast that do not yet belong on an international stage.