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The Merry Widow, English National Opera review - glitter but no sparkle | reviews, news & interviews

The Merry Widow, English National Opera review - glitter but no sparkle

The Merry Widow, English National Opera review - glitter but no sparkle

It's hard to know whether to mourn or celebrate this uneven production

Diamonds are a girl's best friend: Hanna (Sarah Tynan) makes her entrance© Bill Knight for theartsdesk

It’s all there. High kicks and tight corsets; silk and sequins and shenanigans in a broom closet; hot pinks and still hotter can-can girls; waltzing, scheming, sparring, and a bit with a banquet table. There’s even a dancing beaver. So why don’t I feel more elated?

English National Opera’s new Merry Widow can’t be faulted for effort. But in comedy, as in seduction or sales, trying too hard can be almost as destructive as not trying at all. Gripping Lehar’s crystal champagne flute of an operetta in a hot fist only leads to spillage and a swift loss of bubbles.The Merry Widow, English National OperaEveryone’s had a go at the Widow. Tom Stoppard has done it, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Simon Butteriss, Jeremy Sams’ translation is the only redeeming feature of the current Met production, which is perhaps how the unlikely double-act of April de Angelis and Richard Thomas ended up with the gig. Thomas brings all the subtlety of Jerry Springer the Opera to lyrics that rarely rise above the moon/June level of invention, and the usually brilliant de Angelis fares only a little better with the book which only tinkers around the edges of the plot. Did they ever meet? There’s no evidence of it in the sudden lurches in tone that regularly send the drama sprawling from Edwardian pantomime to locker-room innuendo. And what's with all the Americanisms?

Much has been made in previews of the production’s up-to-date attitude and its feminism. But apparently when they said feminism what they meant was that the can-can dancers wear Doc Martens along with their skimpies. Interestingly the most progressive moment of the original – where the “respectable wife” Valencienne kicks off her marital respectability and joins the Chez Maxim grisettes – gets re-assigned to Hanna here, missing the point rather spectacularly (but showing off the impressive dancing skills of leading lady Sarah Tynan, pictured below).The Merry Widow, English National OperaThere are some good moments. Hanna’s first entrance, styled with more than a nod to Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes points up the plot’s neatly gender-reversed take on fortune-hunting, and relocating the men’s ensemble to a urinal (complete with, er, free-flowing choreography) makes a cheeky riposte to Calixto Bieito’s infamous ENO Un Ballo in Maschera. A Valencienne in thrall to therapy’s psycho-babble makes for some nice lines, but what a shame her tryst with Camille takes place in a broom-cupboard whose hinged door ensures a good third of the auditorium can’t see what’s going on inside. Far better is director Max Webster's canny substitution of Act II’s awkward gazebo for a pair of banquet tables whose quakes and trembles reveal the amorous couple concealed beneath.The Merry Widow, English National OperaThe music is a similarly mixed bag. Lehar’s diaphanous melodies and deft scoring should be lighter than a promise made after midnight, and every bit as evanescent. Here, however, conductor Kristiina Poska gives us the shouted declarations of an earnest teenager with a boombox on his shoulder. There’s too much pah and not nearly enough oom to an account plagued by balance issues (not helped by dodgy amplification that comes and goes unreliably between dialogue and song) and too often obliterates the stage.The Merry Widow, English National OperaA cast of ENO regulars give it their all. Andrew Shore does what he does best as the wheezing cuckold Baron Zeta, and Robert Murray and Rhian Lois are a fabulous Camille and Valencienne (pictured above). Veteran Nathan Gunn ambles and shambles his way genially through as playboy Danilo, though there’s a bit of a void where the central chemistry should be. Tynan likewise delivers an absolutely efficient performance, doing everything that is asked of her (and everything is) and more, but never quite holding either stage or score in her hand as a true Hanna should.

Energy and a very obvious desire to please carries this production home – just. It looks great, and relaxation and familiarity will solve a lot of the problems, though the essential conflict between a desire to shock and a desperate fear of actually succeeding will remain. If you like your widows brassy and sturdily shod, more Real Housewives of Pontevedro than gilded Parisian ballroom, then this one’s for you.

Gripping Lehar’s crystal champagne flute of an operetta in a hot fist only leads to spillage and a swift loss of bubbles


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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This review is misleading. The writers have dragged a deeply misogynist opera into the 21st Century and it's actually funny, enjoyable, despite the remnants of old school sexism. WORTH SEEING

Not misleading, just a different (and finely written) perspective. The real elephant in the room is, of course, the nature of this piece of froth, which doesn't seem to offer any good reason to be staged. Concert performance would do, if we really must...same goes for Fledermaus, though musiically that's at a more consistently high level. Depliore D Kramer's wish to ignore 'Janacek and other obscures' and turn his attention to operettas no-one really wants to see any more.

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