Directed by Max Webster and conducted by Kristiina Poska, this modern adaptation of Franz Lehar’s 1905 comic masterpiece has opened at London’s Coliseum.
For those with any reservations about a night at the opera, we’d like to make something abundantly clear – ENO’s new production of The Merry Widow is the campest, funniest and most accessible opera we’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Those expecting to see a traditional piece of high art will be surprised with this modernised adaptation, with its contemporary references and more-is-more approach to entertainment value.
The most popular operetta of the 20th century, it tells the story of Hanna Glawari (Sarah Tynan), a wealthy young widow from the poverty-stricken Balkan province of Pontevedro. The ambassador Baron Zeta (Andrew Shore) is keen to keep her wealth in the country to save the province from financial ruin, so encourages her to re-marry a local man as opposed to a gentleman from Paris. However, Hanna already has designs on Danilo (Nathan Gunn), her former lover who has no interest in her money but has a healthy appetite for women and alcohol.
It all looks utterly fabulous. The first act takes place in the decaying former grandeur of the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris, full of dusty chandeliers and grand staircases whose banisters break during the act with perfect comic timing. After the interval we are treated to a banquet scene at Hanna’s gloriously opulent mansion, and a party scene at Chez Maxim’s night club. It’s an absolute visual feast, with incredible attention to detail, a rich colour palette and some eye-catching outfits.
Of course it’s a delightful audio treat, too. While the lead role may be a gift to any soprano, Sarah Tynan delivers it beautifully. The standard of singing amongst the principal cast is – as expected – incredibly high, and both the chorus and the orchestra sound great. There are so many impressive set-pieces that it’s difficult to choose a highlight, but we were thoroughly entertained by the men’s ensemble performance in the urinals – it was cheeky, silly and genuinely very funny.
The language has been updated and the references are unrelentingly modern, which we appreciated. There’s a surprisingly humorous and unexpected Brexit joke; there’s relatable content about cheap prosecco; and there’s a good deal of physical, slapstick comedy which was executed very well indeed. Throw in some can-can girls in corsets, men in sequins and hot pants and – we kid you not – a pair of dancing beavers, and the result is a delightfully camp update of Lehar’s operetta.
We found this production of The Merry Widow difficult to fault. It won’t please everyone with its high-camp, more-is-more approach to the humour of the piece, and some might not enjoy its ferociously modern language, use of Americanisms and contemporary references – but we utterly adored it and found ourselves grinning from ear to ear the whole way through. Bravo ENO.
Gay Times gives The Merry Widow ★★★★★
More information can be found here.