The Merry Widow is a charming bit of Viennese nonsense with some good tunes and a bit of a Beatrice and Benedict plot. ENO has tried very hard – maybe too hard – to update it a bit, though whether this effort really does require the dose of toilet humour it gets is a moot point. There is no doubt that this version – with its dancing beavers and sweary dialogue – went down a treat with the first night audience. I hope it proves another cash cow for ENO but it won’t win any awards for quality.
Hanna Glawari is the ‘Anna Nicole’ of the impoverished state of Pontevedro. She has been left fabulously wealthy when her elderly millionaire husband dies and so when she moves to Paris, the Pontevedrin ambassador to France needs to find her a Pontevedrin husband to keep her cash at home and avoid state bankruptcy. He selects the charming Count Danilo Danilowitsch, an underemployed embassy official. It turns out that Hanna and Danilo have a ‘past’ and though Hanna looks keen to revive it, Danilo is inexplicably reluctant. Through a series of balls, parties, and nightclub visits they circle each other while, all around them, ‘respectable wives’ behave badly and dim husbands fail to notice. No prizes for guessing what the happy ending looks like.
The wonderful Sarah Tynan makes a startlingly convincing good time girl from the wrong side of the tracks. No surprise that she sings the part so well, whether leaning on a beaver or swinging on a moon. But her Marilyn Monroe-esque dancing style works a treat too. Nathan Gunn was a world-weary Danilo with a rich baritone voice. Andrew Shore as Baron Zeta recycled his Dr Bartolo to excellent effect and did a great comedy double act with his clerk Njegus – Gerard Carey in a non-singing role. Rhian Lois and Robert Murray played the other couple whose reluctance to end their illicit affair can add a bittersweet tinge to the comedy – but not in this version.
The production goes for glitter and excess – and hits its mark. The folk dancers from Pontevedro look like refugees from the Village People and their funky beavers (the beaver being the symbol of the country) got a lot of laughs. As did the urinal scene with its jets of (fake) urine. The lyrics included some good new jokes – “the fan has hit the sh*t”, for example – but the production really could have dispensed with some of the slapstick zimmer jokes. There was an uneasy disjunction between the plot and the ‘tone of voice’ of the new version.
Kristiina Poska from Estonia was an accomplished conductor and the piece sounded pretty good, given that the Coliseum is just too big to be an ideal home for this sort of operetta. It is a production with a wicked sense of mischief and it goes for – and gets – laughs. It misses a lot of what was in the original but for the first night audience that did not seem to matter at all.
- Music: Franz Lehar
- Libretto: Leon and Stein
- English lyrics: Richard Thomas
- Director: Max Webster
- Conductor: Kristiina Poska
- Cast includes: Sarah Tynan, Nathan Gunn, Andrew Shore, Rhian Lois
- Venue: London Coliseum
- Until April 13
- Time: 19:30pm (2hrs 30mins)