Saturday 2 March 2019

The Merry Widow at English National Opera

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Enlgish National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Lehar: The Merry Widow - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Lehar The Merry Widow; Sarah Tynan, Nathan Gunn, Rhian Lois, Robert Murray, dir: Max Webster, cond: Kristiina Poska; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A sparkling new production which brings an element of farce to the comedy, but seems not yet quite in focus

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Sarah Tynan, Nathan Gunn - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Sarah Tynan, Nathan Gunn (© Clive Barda)
Having recently given successful performances of English operettas by Gilbert & Sullivan, English National Opera has turned its attention to Austrian operetta and a new production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow debuted at the London Coliseum on 1 March 2019. The operetta has received a new book from April De Angelis (playwright and librettist of Jonathan Dove's Flight and lyrics from Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer the Opera). Directed by Max Webster, with sets by Ben Stones and costumes by Esther Bialas, the production featured Sarah Tynan as Hanna, Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo, Andrew Shore as Baron Zeta, Rhian Lois as Valencienne, Robert Murray as Camille and Gerard Carey as Njegus. Kristiina Poska conducted.

April de Angelis and Richard Thomas' new version discreetly updated the piece whilst keeping the original setting, some numbers received entirely new set-ups rather than being translations of the original, and the dialogue introduced a level of modish modernism to the piece. For all the programme book's talk about feminism and role reversal, the updating felt a bit tame and there could have been something a bit more radical. And frankly, Thomas' lyrics were no match for the classic English version by Christopher Hassall (who wrote lyrics for Ivor Novello).

Max Webster's lively production kept the period feel whilst introducing elements of modern anachronism in the attitudes, and the general feel with its all-singing all-dancing atmosphere (the production featured an ensemble of 11 dancers with choreography by Lizzi Gee) was very much the great American musical, so that Hanna's first entry down the staircase was pure Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. Ben Stones' designs kept the stage space tight, we never experienced the wide open spaces of the Coliseum's full stage and there was even a false proscenium, all clearly designed to mitigate against the problem of staging operetta in the theatre's wide open spaces.

Whilst Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan brought an element of social satire to French and English operetta, the Viennese variety was firmly embedded in comedy and farce. A common thread between the French and Viennese varieties was Henri Meilhac, who co-wrote librettos for Offenbach and whose play was the basis for the Merry Widow. But there are major differences in tone, and sentimental comedy and mistaken identity are key to the Viennese version. To this frothy mix Max Webster successfully added an element of farce, not sending the piece up but nudging the comedy of mistaken identities into more farcical territory. Central to this was the delightful figure of Gerard Carey as the hapless Njegus.

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Sarah Tynan - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Lehar: The Merry Widow - Sarah Tynan - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
I last heard Estonian conductor Kristiina Poska at the helm of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in a programme of 20th and 21st century Estonian music as part of Estonian Music Days in 2017 [see my review].
Here she made her UK opera debut in very different fare. She and the orchestra brought a lush, luxurious feel to the overture which Lehar added to the opera later, and throughout there was a rich Viennese feel to the orchestral playing making it clear that this was the Vienna of Strauss and Mahler. The result was to fill the theatre successfully with gorgeous sound, but perhaps also to deprive the work of transparency, lightness and verve. Not for the first time, I felt that ENO should be concentrating its operetta tendency in a smaller theatre.

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Robert Murray, Rhian Lois - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Robert Murray, Rhian Lois - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
When I first heard The Merry Widow in the theatre, at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in a production at Scottish Opera in the 1970s, the title role was sung by Catherine Wilson, a soprano who also sang the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier with the company. Sarah Tynan's recent appearances with ENO have been very different, the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. And her Hanna was sung in a similar mould, with intelligent musicality and a lovely silver thread of sound. Whilst not convincingly working class, she brought a delightful down-to-earth feeling to Hanna, and her costumes were pure Hollywood 1930s as compared to the period 1910s for the rest of the company.

Her entrance, with its glamorous descent of the staircase surrounded by the male chorus, revealed a problem however. The silver thread of Tynan's sound just failed to project successfully over the rich sounds from male chorus and the orchestra, instead becoming somewhat muddled into the sound. And this remained a problem, whilst the setting of 'Vilja' was pure Hollywood with Tynan descending on a crescent moon, Tynan's elegant thread of sound simply failed to carry and there were moments that you had to strain to hear. There was the basis of a fine Hanna here, but as yet Tynan's fine musicality just does not carry into the auditorium

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Nicholas Lester, Jamie MacDougall  - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Nicholas Lester, Jamie MacDougall  - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Perhaps it didn't help that the electric spark between Tynan and Nathan Gunn's Danilo seemed lacking. Frankly, Danilo does not have to be a great singer but does need to project both charisma and Weltschmerz, as well as creating an electric undercurrent between the two leads. Undoubtedly Gunn went a long way, and having sung the role at the Met with Renee Fleming (another Marschallin), his projection in the Coliseum was fine. But the world weariness never had quite the sense of bitterness that the piece needs, and you were never sure about his attraction to Hanna.

The remainder of the cast were all ENO stalwarts providing extremely strong support and creating a very convincing backdrop for the two principals. Rhian Lois made a delightful Valencienne, with Lois bringing a nice fullness of tone to her lyric soprano and making her sense of comedy completely apparent. It helped that Lois and Robert Murray as Camille did create a successful spark between the two characters. Murray successfully blended strong vocal tone with a lightness of touch which worked well and gave depth to the character of Camille. Given that the role of Danilo was originally sung by a tenor I can't help wishing that ENO had given Murray a chance as Danilo, perhaps next revival!

Andrew Shore did what he could with Baron Zeta, bringing his skill in comedy to the farcial elements and never pushing the character over into complete dunderheadedness. Nicholas Lester, and Jamie MacDougall did their best as Cascada and St Brioche, both rather schematic characters and it was clear that Lester and MacDougall were having great fun, but the comic accents were step too far. The other roles were sung mainly by ENO chorus members, providing a finely characterful backdrop with Paul Sheehan as Bogdanowitsch, Lydia Marchione as Sylviane, Adam Sullivan as Krmow, Deborah Davison as Olga, Trevor Eliot Bowes as Prtschitsch and Natalie Herman as Praskowia.

Gerard Carey was a complete delight as Njegus, bringing a nice verve to the comic role.

The chorus was hard working and also very engaging, providing an all singing, all dancing element to the piece and with chorus principals in small roles the whole had a nice rich mix of character. They were supported by a lively troupe of dancers who brought a rather tongue-in-cheek attitude to the staging, and I liked the way that for once the male dancers were more scantily clad than the women!

Lehar: The Merry Widow - Sarah Tynan - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
Lehar: The Merry Widow - Sarah Tynan - English National Opera (© Clive Barda)
There was a lot right with this production, and the whole was done with a lightness of touch and lacked both the earnestness and the end-of-pier humour which can sometimes kill English versions of Viennese and French operetta. The production does not seem to have quite come into focus yet, and whilst the ensemble sparkles and glitters wonderfully, the two principals are not the centre of attention that they should be. Hopefully this will happen during the run.

The Merry Widow runs in repertoire at ENO until 13 April 2019.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Home

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