BWW Review: THE MERRY WIDOW, London Coliseum
A comic operetta is a difficult thing to pull off, but the ENO has good form with the genre, having had great success with an irreverent version of Iolanthe last year. This year, they turn their attention to a new version of The Merry Widow for the first time in over a decade.
The show is Franz Lehar's masterpiece; a comic operetta that has become one of the most popular works of the 20th century. Using a new translation by April De Angelis and lyrics by Richard Thomas, Director Max Webster has created a show that is fun, flashy and verging on bawdy.
Hanna Glawari is a very Rich Woman after the death of her husband. Ambassador Baron Zeta is keen for her money to stay in their poverty-stricken country of Pontevedra, rather than it going abroad if Hanna decides to marry a foreigner. Zeta plans to match Hanna with Count Danilo, unaware that the pair were due to married in the past. There follows a battle of wits as the pair continue to deny their mutual attraction.
Although the story has a woman at its heart, its feminist credentials are severely tested throughout, particularly with the ending where the woman in question gives up her heart and dutifully hands over her fortune to a man.
In an attempt to counter this, Webster has created an intelligent and witty Hanna in Sarah Tynan. Costumed as a 1940s cockney blonde bombshell (Tynan is from Walthamstow), she gives credence to the straight-talking and non-nonsense attitude of this particularly empowered version of the character. Tynan shows a delicate balance of emotion, particularly in "Vilja" perched on a crescent moon above the stage.
Nathan Gunn makes his ENO debut as classic heartthrob Danilo and his chemistry with Tynan in the 'will-they, won't-they' storyline is convincing. Gunn shows off his rich and flexible baritone well.
Less believable is the relationship between Camille and Valencienne, played by Robert Murray and Rhian Lois. Lois verges on hysterical as she searches for the fan that will expose her infidelity and her voice can screech a little.
The ever-reliable Andrew Shore bumbles around beautifully as Zeta. Showing off his excellent comic acting skills as well as his voice. He bounces off brilliantly with Gerard Carey who is very amusing as court clerk Njegus.
With well-timed jokes about Brexit and reasonably-priced Prosecco, Webster brings the humour of the production bang up to date. The elegance of Imperial Vienna is replaced by with more obvious humour-Valencienne and Camille's covert meeting in the greenhouse becomes a very blatant encounter under a table and the men's chorus complaining about how flighty women are is performed in front of a row of urinals. It is not subtle, but it is funny.
Ben Stones' wonderful set design is contained within a giant golden frame. It moves from a creaking and crumbling Pontevedran Embassy to a fabulously over the top Maxim's night club. There is vibrant use of colour, glitter and the whole production sparkles with energy. Esther Bialas' costumes are beautifully realised, with some knockout dresses for Hanna, inspired by Marilyn Monroe.
The chorus has great fun and is on top form here, with careful and animated conducting from Kristiina Poska, although the orchestra threatens to drown out the singers several times in the first act.
There may be little overreliance on slapstick comedy here for some, but overall the show is fun, frothy and fabulous.
Photo Credit: Clive Barda