With its new production of The Merry Widow, the English National Opera provides a rare treat. Artistic achievement at a very high level and joyous entertainment combine to satisfy mind and soul. And thanks to Franz Lehár's wonderful melodies, one leaves the opera house smiling and singing the tunes.
Veteran opera director John Copley treats the libretto and musical score with respect and thorough understanding. Humour, so essential to the plot, is predominant but Copley presents the characters with compassion, not afraid to show their human frailties. Conductor Oliver von Dohnányi gives a fully operatic but sensitive rendering of Lehár's operetta score. In such a committed performance as Dohnányi's, Lehár's operetta music is no way inferior to opera. Indeed, at times we could have been forgiven for thinking that we were listening to operatic excerpts by Dvořák.
Amanda Roocroft is superbly cast in the title role. Her singing is of top standard and her dancing is a joy to watch, while the fact she keeps a gentle North of England accent in the spoken dialogue lends credibility to Hanna Glawari's supposed past as a country girl. The famous Act Two Vilja song (using a huntsman and a nymph of the wood to tell a story of unfulfilled love) was a masterclass in taste and timing. John Graham-Hall portrays Count Danilo Danilowitsch as a deeply hurt man who pretends not to have a care in the world. His bitter Act Two ballade about a prince and princess's misfortune in love is much more meaningful than in productions where Danilo is only funny. Like Roocroft, Graham-Hall also delivers excellent singing and dancing.
Richard Suart, as Baron Zeta the Pontevedrian Ambassador in Paris, is very funny but rightly shows the vulnerability of old husbands with young wives. Alfie Boe (as Camille de Rosillon) puts his athletism to good use for his portrayal of the secret lover and, evidently, his popular albums do not harm Boe's ability to sing and act on the opera stage. Fiona Murphy (Valencienne) is convincing in the somewhat unfortunate role of the respectable wife pursuing a secret love affair and she delivers a fine vocal performance. Popular actor Roy Hudd (Njegus) delights with an excellently timed (and very musical!) comic performance.
The large Coliseum stage is brilliantly utilised for grand entrances, visually pleasing crowd scenes and magnificent dances. The costumes seem to be authentic for the time and place of the operetta's plot – we can well imagine Pontevedrian folk costumes would look exactly like those presented here by designer Deidre Clancy – and they are pleasing to the eye. Folk dances, Parisian can-can and the famous Act Two 'Merry Widow Waltz' are all beautifully choreographed (by Anthony van Laast and Nichola Treherne) and skilfully performed.
There were some minor blemishes on the opening night. The solo violinist did not blend into the style of the overall musical concept and his intonation was disappointing. The theatre lights stayed on during the overture to Act Three, thus encouraging some of the audience – those who seem only to see but not to hear music - to indulge in loud conversation while conductor Oliver von Dohnányi and the ENO orchestra played beautifully. However, none of these problems occurred at the final rehearsal prior to the opening night, so the production merits the maximum star rating and it is a 'must see' for everybody who appreciates light entertainment of high artistic standard.
By Agnes Kory
Read our recent interview with Amanda Roocroft about this production of The Merry Widow, returning to Jenufa at ENO next year and forthcoming engagements as Madama Butterfly and Desdemona in Otello at Welsh National Opera here.