English National Opera at the London Coliseum



When the curtain went up on this new production by ENO of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) - first seen in 1905 and one of the most popular operettas of the 20th century and ENO’s first new staging of it in over a decade - the stage was overflowing with a battalion of waiting-staff smart, regimented and attired in traditional dress madly running all over the show in readiness for the arrival of the dazzling and wealthy young widow Hanna Glawari to the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris.

Here, the Pontevedrian Ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta (played so well and over-the-top in a devilish, colourful and scheming way by stalwart ENO singer, Andrew Shore - the man for buffo roles, that’s for sure!) is throwing a grand party in Madame Glawari’s honour whilst also throwing the dice at the same time hoping for a ‘six’ to win him a slice of her massive fortune to stop his kingdom from falling into bankruptcy. 

Madame Glawari (the role so effortlessly sung and well portrayed by Sarah Tynan returning to the company for her second major appearance this season after singing the title-role in Lucia di Lammermoor) arrived in style as befitting her standing in society by way of the embassy’s grand-sweeping Edwardian-style staircase adorned by a long-sequinned silver-coloured dress with Baron Zeta toasting the ‘lady-of-the moment’ with a glass of Prosecco - Champagne’s on hold until the fortunes of the mythical state of Pontevedrin improves. 

For that to happen Madame Glawari has to marry a Pontevedrin and the Ambassador’s choice is none other than the wayward cavalry lieutenant and secretary to the embassy, Count Danilo Danilowitsch, played with a certain amount of boyish charm by Nathan Gunn who undertook the role at The Met five years ago singing opposite Renée Fleming. He much prefers the social life of Parisian nightclubs such as Maxim’s rather than the dutiful life of being a diplomat. But as he possesses an appetite for wine, women and song, the romance, as one would expect, is hampered by mishap, intrigue and comedic misadventure - all the way to the bank!

And to close the first act, director Max Webster (associate director of the Old Vic and making his ENO début) conjured up a wonderful scene showing Danilo in an other-worldly and delirious state singing and dancing surrounded by a host of Glawari ‘doubles’ with paper money raining down upon him left, right and centre no doubt to his heart’s content but certainly to the utter delight of Baron Zeta.

Without doubt, the score of The Merry Widow is rich and colourful in every conceivable way overflowing with a host of immortal and well-loved numbers punctuated not least by ‘Vilja’s Song’ telling the sad story of Vilja, the wood spirit, which Ms Tynan sang so romantically and tenderly hoisted well above the stage looking slightly uncomfortable, too, perched on a crescent moon (the Good Fairy in pantomime flashed through my mind) whilst ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’, played softly and serenely by the English National Opera Orchestra under Estonian-born conductor Kristiina Poska (making her ENO début and acclaimed for her work at the Komische Oper Berlin) evoked the majesty and charm of Old Vienna while Ben Stones’ rich and lush sets evoked the gracious period of the Belle Époque romantically mirroring a French Impressionist painting.

Overall, the casting was good particularly in relation to the pairing of Robert Murray and Rhian Lois who put in well-disciplined performances as Camille de Rosillon and Valencienne (Baron Zeta’s flirtatious young wife) enjoying their moment in a secret rendezvous in a broom-cupboard while sexual tension boiled over when a couple of draped-banquet tables duped Count Zeta as to the identity of the amorous couple up to no good beneath them. Ooh La La! Well-disciplined performances also came from Nicholas Lester as Vicomte Cascada and Jamie MacDougall as Raoul de St Brioche.

Not only is she a superb singer, Sarah Tynan turns out to be a good dancer, too, and she was seen madly strutting her stuff at Maxim’s in an act of defiance taunting Danilo by joining in a routine with the Grisettes (plus a pair of tap-dancing bears) in a risqué cabaret act with the girls announcing that ‘we’re here to please you as well as here to fleece you’. 

The dancers looked the business from top to toe dressed in an array of revealing outfits beautifully designed by Esther Bialas dancing in the style of erotically- charged animated dolls to choreography conjured up Lizzi Gee against a moody-lighting scenario by Bruno Poet (responsible for such great ENO productions as AkhnatenSatyagraha and Aida) which added the finishing touch to a show-stopping scene.

There was a non-singing role, too, the embassy clerk, Nejgus, admirably played by Gerard Carey who did not act too dissimilar from Manuel, that likeable waiter so well-loved in Fawlty Towers. He bumbled and tumbled about the stage in a frenetic manner sorting out a host of delicate and personal issues surrounding his boss, Count Zeta, to the amusement of all. 

Overall, though, it was a good production but at times it lacked a bit of sparkle particular in the first act but by the end glitter-balls galore more or less made up for it turning the lush auditorium of the Coliseum briefly into a Parisian night-club as befitting a scene from Maxim’s. 

I was not over-fussed by April de Angelis’ new English translation while lyricist Richard Thomas (librettist for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole) incorporated a few gags here and there and stuffed in a few double-entendres, too, that would have raised a good belly laugh in a ‘Carry On’ film but, seemingly, hit the buffers in this production. 

For instance, there was a play on words about Count Danilo’s title. Got it? Then there was the issue of the handful of slushy romantic words written on Valencienne’s fan by her lover, Camille. It the word got out - all hell will break loose. Think? It’s Rocky Horror stuff!

But the biggest laugh of all was raised in the Men’s (lavatory humour never fails to ignite an audience!) with the Baron, the Count and their cronies in a front-of-stage vaudeville-type sketch in the urinals (old-fashioned ones, too) while damning the power of the opposite sex with Baron Zeta running away with first prize as far as I’m concerned for being the highest ‘aimer’.

Thankfully, in the end, his marital problems get sorted out, all the women agree that the men in their lives have a lot of making up to do and Count Danilo finally confirms his true love for Hanna. As in all good stories, everyone lives happily ever after. Hooray! Kisses and champagne all round!

Tony Cooper

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Max Webster (director)

Ben Stones (set designer)

Esther Bialas (costume designer)

Bruno Poet (lighting designer)

Lizzi Gee (choreographer) 

April de Angelis (English book) 

Richard Thomas (English lyrics)

Hanna Glawari (Sarah Tynan)

Count Danilo Danilowitsch (Nathan Gunn)

Baron Mirko Zeta (Andrew Shore)

Camille de Rosillon (Robert Murray)

Valencienne (Rhian Lois)

Vicomte Cascada (Nicholas Lester)

Raoul de St Brioche (Jamie MacDougall)

Njegus (Gerard Carey) 

English National Opera Orchestra, conductor: Kristiina Poska

English National Opera Chorus, chorus master: Mark Biggins



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