The Merry Widow, by Franz Lehár. Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre

A production which, for its many delights, never makes up its mind whether it wants to be melancholy or jovial, but remains a memorable and special experience nonetheless.

With Lehár’s The Merry Widow, Opera North’s 2018/19 season continues to reflect on the Great War in this centenary year. With the exception of two operas in this season, all were written no more than twenty years before or after the war, and—so far—all productions contain something of the spirit of the time. Tosca, which Leeds Living recently reviewed, truly carries something of the grandeur and poignancy of Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, even as it dramatises action set during the Napoleonic Wars some hundred years earlier.

All photographs provided by Opera North

The Merry Widow could hardly be more different in its aim and character than from Tosca. And yet the frivolous and light-hearted action, the paper-thin plot, and pretty, simple tunes—for all the laughter and raucous applause which they received—still seemed somehow poignant. The characters meet in the first scene to mark a birthday: it is that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—though I hasten to add, this is a feature of this production and not in the original text—whose assassination within ten years of the première of Lehár’s operetta, we know, will spark the Great War. The production, noting the poignancy of this absent presence, puts a picture of the Archduke on the back wall of the stage, and the sense of a sadness in the audience is palpable, even if it is quickly dissolved in the ensuing comedy.

Adrian Mourby puts the matter well in his excellent programme notes when he comes to compare The Merry Widow with Strauss’ (roughly contemporary) Der Rosenkavalier: ‘Both pieces presented a comic world that would soon be changed forever, and in the immense popularity of both works it is possible to sense that audiences knew this was the end, without knowing it’. However, Mourby offers another reason—one of which I was but dimly aware before: ‘One of the greatest fans of The Merry Widow at its opening in 1905 was a 16-year-old would-be artist living in Vienna. Adolf Hitler saw the operetta dozens of times.’ Mourby then goes on to speak about Hitler’s involvement in the Great War, concluding: ‘and so, though no one knew it at the time, began the process that destroyed the Ruritanian innocence of Europe forever’.

Thus, when in one of the many jokes to the crowd, a character says, “No wonder Europe’s in such a state!”, there is a voluble laugh, but I find myself unsure whether we are really supposed to be so amused. The same went for other jokes such as when the titular widow, Hanna Glawari (played with wonderful energy, aplomb, and voice by Máire Flavin) complains about the onslaught of male attention to which she is subject by comparing herself to the Balkans. The attention she gets from the operetta’s male characters is partly driven by love, but substantially also by the money left to her by her late husband. The issue that drives the plot is that her money is required to stay in the fictional Pontevedrian economy lest the country go bankrupt. When a character objects that, surely, the late Mr Glawari’s money is secure in the bank, perhaps the best joke of the night is the response that “one never knows with banks”. Although, again, although funny, there is a certain darkness to this humour. The production, then, seemed always to be caught uncomfortably between melancholy and gaiety and, even in its happiest moments, seemed like a last hurrah, a curtain call.

Despite this persistent sense of melancholy, still the production glowed as an ode to the virtues (and some of the vices) of the nineteenth century. This was nowhere more in evidence than in the moving speech of the erstwhile comic and cuckolded character, Baron Zeta (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Dolton), to his less-than-faithful wife. Both the language and manner of his speech overtly suggested the by now very old and almost totally dead tradition of chivalry. Although there was here (as everywhere in the opera) the distinct sense of a well-worn trope or commonplace, it was nevertheless—or even because of this—very moving.

Whilst many supposedly joyful numbers were danced and sung, I could not adjust my sympathies to any so well as the beautifully melancholy ‘Vilja Song’ which opened the second half. Again, as with the Baron’s speech, the conventional—even cliché—nature of this moment made it the more moving in its nostalgia. However, the second half dragged more than the first, thanks to the thinness of the plot, which one is eager to see worked out. Reflecting on this, I can see why the immensely popular operetta was freely cut, adapted, and remodelled when it was adopted in London.

Nevertheless, there were still wonderful moments in this half, especially the violin obbligato which accompanied the duet between the adulterous Baroness Valencienne (played by Amy Freston) and Camille de Rosillon, her lover (played by Nicholas Watts), which was particularly sweet and touching. I was not terribly surprised to find in my programme notes that Lehár’s own first job, at age eighteen, was as a theatre violinist. These two singers also played their parts with wonderful energy and fine voices. I should also mention the male lead, the Dutch singer Quirijn de Lang, who played Count Danilo Danilovitch. He and Flavin’s Hanna Glawari made a radiant couple on stage, and both their voices were rich, clear, and beautiful. The cast was consistently strong, but once or twice the size and volume of the orchestra (which ought to have been of smaller proportion for the clarity required for operetta) drowned out the consonants of some singers, making their words unintelligible. Again, this is a considerable problem in an operetta where the wit of the script counts for so much.

On the subject of scripts, another special feature of the production was the excellent translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with director Giles Havergal, via which much of the wit of the production was carried. Most impressive in this was the use of elegant and beautiful rhymes. Like any translation, certain parts were better than others, but overall, the work was very impressive. I also enjoyed the little Shakespeareanisms sprinkled over the text, such as when characters described things as ‘rich and strange’ (a quotation from Ariel’s song in The Tempest) and as when one character laments that ‘there is something rotten in the state’ (although it was hard not to hear ‘…of Denmark’ in the mind’s ear). The set design (by Leslie Travers), with its damask wallpaper and movable nymph statues (which swayed from side to side as they were moved), was not as impressive as has been the custom in other recent Opera North productions, but the costume design (also by Travers) was beyond reproach, and evoked the period perfectly. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design used a light but sensitive touch, and Stuart Hopps’ choreography carried much of the joy of the evening.

This production was clearly a crowd-pleaser. The theatre was packed in a way I have never seen for another Opera North production (and they are always popular), and thunderous laughter and applause were the contributions that the clearly well pleased audience made to the evening. I remain bothered by the complexity of emotional response for which the production seemed to ask, and which it seemed not to receive from the audience—but since I can hardly review the audience, this hardly matters.

The production plays till 12th Oct in Leeds, then tours round Newcastle, Hull, Nottingham, and Salford Quays between 24th Oct and 17th Nov. As always, I would encourage readers to try this quite special production.

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