The Merry Widow

Music by Franz Lehár, book and lyrics by Victor Leon and Leo Stein, in a new English version by Jeremy Sams
Carl Rosa Opera
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production shot of The Merry Widow

In an ever-changing theatrical world, where everything from Shakespeare to Verdi, from the Mystery Plays to Sarah Kane, can be - and are - experimented with, re-examined, reworked and reinterpreted, there is one thing that remains as "fixed and constant as the northern star": the operettas of Franz Lehár. It is inconceivable that they should be played in anything but their original settings, with their fin de siècle air and a lushness of costuming and scenery to complement the lushness of the music.

Wisely the Carl Rosa Company has followed convention in this new production but with some little modern touches which add to, rather than detract from, the piece itself. To have the Frenchmen speak with an accent which owes more to 'Allo 'Allo than Paris is clever and amusing: perhaps the presence of Arthur Bostrom (the English "gendarme" of that TV series) as Njegus might have inspired that idea!

The hilarious choreography of Who Can Tell What the Hell Women Are?, the male chorus in Act II, with its echoes of, among other things, Busby Berkley and the can-can, was a welcome and in-keeping (albeit somewhat anachronistic) idea.

The cast, which includes the wonderful veteran Victor Spinetti as Baron Zeta, were first class, particularly Jan Hartley whose Hanna, sweetly singing though she may be, is made of steel, and Earl Carpenter as Danilo, who was beautifully dissipated and yet endearing.

A special mention, too, must be made of Jeremy Sams' new book and lyrics: they are modern and yet totally appropriate.

But of course it's the music which holds the greatest appeal, as we could tell in the entr'acte between Acts II and III as the audience (this reviewer included) quietly sang along with the Vilja-lied, which Miss Hartley had sung so beautifully in the opening of the second act.

At a time when the latest piece of music theatre on the scene, Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, has garnered - at best - indifferent reviews, it is good to be reminded of what was arguably the first great piece of twentieth century music theatre!

Kevin Catchpole reviewed the first night of the tour at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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