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The Merry Widow

Music by Franz Lehár, libretto by Léon and Stein
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2008)

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Just over 100 years after the first London production at Daly's Theatre of Franz Lehar's colourful operetta The Merry Widow, the Austro-Hungarian magic of the belle époque is recaptured in John Copley's charming production for English National Opera which opened to an inevitably packed house at the Coliseum on Saturday.

A century, and a few hundred yards from the old theatre in Cranbourn Street, separate the two events - yet Pontevedro is unchanged, raising once more a spectacular celebration from the depths of its poverty while the music of Lehar remains as captivatingly bitter sweet as when the melodies were first heard.

Of course, it's the Emperor's birthday and the glittering occasion is all about flattering the impoverished nation's richest young widow, now in the lovely persona of soprano Amanda Roocroft.

If her performance does not yet possess quite the dramatic authority one has come to expect from this first lady of operetta, Amanda Roocroft looks and sounds like a dream and, who knows, she may gain from the strength of this fine production to become one of the finest Widows the European, let alone the English stage has produced.

Notable in her first line of support is tenor John Graham-Hall whose Danilo is one of the finest sung I have heard. To be sure, he is not lacking in authority, or humour, but then, in addition to his expertise in grand opera, his CV reveals also his considerable flair as a light comedian.

Blending delightfully into the romantic spirit of proceedings are mezzo Fiona Murphy (Valancienne) and the superb Lyric tenor Alfie Boe (Camille) whose duets are a source of particular delight. Morover, Ms Murphy reveals much of her "hidden talent" in the famous Grisette scene.

Richard Suart is a nicely lugubrious Zeta who refuses to be upstaged by his irascible factotum, Njegus - despite the fact that this role is in the hands of such an experienced showman as Roy Hudd.

Hudd is plainly in his element in operetta to the extent that one wonders why he hasn't ventured here before. Yet while I found his (to me surprising) absence from the evergreen mens' comedy routine Women, Women, honour was restored to see him rewarded with Tricolor and onions and the item, too long overlooked Lehar original I'm Tres, tres, tres Français.

The orchestra, under the baton of Oliver von Dohnanyi, ensures a crisp pace throughout with every respect where appropriate to Lehar's military training.

And with memories of an earlier modern revival not entirely expunged, one is delighted to report that Mr Copley takes no liberties with this show and that the Grisettes, in particular, do what one expects from Grisettes! And they do it very well.

All that said, I must address the issue of the text, of which there have, of course, been many over the years since Messrs Leon and Stein wrote the first, Christopher Hassall and Phil Park, being amongst recent librettists.

The latest book is from the distinguished pen of Jeremy Sams, whose success in this field is legion. However, in this instance it is not only some of us in the house who find the prose a shade difficult to follow, certain of the players on stage appeared to have difficulty getting their teeth around the dialogue. Perhaps Homer has nodded in the Coliseum for once.

Be that as it may, I cannot face new subtitles when I recall so vividly: "Music playing, hear it saying, I love you! Vows unheeding, softly pleading: Love me too! Can't you heart it whisper all your heart would know. You could be the world to me - I love you so!"

Who, after all, would touch the music?

Never mind. In the words of a colleague at the final curtain: "That was pure enchantment." Don't miss it!.

"The Merry Widow" can be seen on Tuesday 29th April, Thursday 1st May, Saturday 3rd May (3.00 pm) Tuesday 6th May, Wednesday 7th May, Friday 9th, Saturday 10th (6.30 pm), Tuesday 20th May, Wednesday 21st , Thursday 29th May and Friday 30th May all at 7.30 p.m.

This production has also been reviewed by Robert Tanitch

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole