Robert Tanitch reviews ENO’s The Merry Widow at London Coliseum
Franz Lehár’s operetta was an enormous success at its premiere in Vienna in 1905 and its success was repeated in 1907 in London, New York and Buenos Aires where it played in 5 languages simultaneously.
Fashionable women everywhere wore The Merry Widow broad-rimmed hat. There were Merry Widow cigars, Merry Widow cosmetics, Merry Widow corsets, Merry Widow cocktails, even Merry Widow dogs.
Lehár (1870-1948) gave the moribund Viennese waltz operettas a new lease of life and became the leading operetta composer of the day.
The most famous waltz in the world, with its infectious, haunting, tender, slightly erotic melody, is repeated again and again. The score – Lipen Schweigen, Weiber March and Ballsirenen – is irresistible. The Merry Widow was said to be Hitler’s favourite opera.
The operetta is glamorous, frothy fin de siècle escapism mirroring the permissive, cynical era of Klimt, Freud, Schiele, and Schnitzler.
There have been three film versions. Eric von Stroheim directed Mae Murray and John Gilbert in 1925. Ernest Lubitsch directed Jeanette McDonald and Maurice Chevalier in 1934. Curtis Bernhardt directed Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas in 1952.
The very thin plot concerns the efforts of the cuckolded Baron Zeta (Andrew Shore) to save his native Ponteverdia from bankruptcy by getting playboy Count Danilo (Nathan Gunn) to marry Hanna Glawari, the extremely wealthy merry widow, (played dead common by Sarah Tynan) and ensure that her 20 million francs do not leave the country.
The subplot concerns Valencienne (Rhian Lois), the Baron’s young wife’s flirtations with Camille (Robert Murray) a French aristocrat, and the loss of her fan with his incriminating message of love written all over it.
Max Webster’s production, conducted by Kristiina Poska, takes a broad, heavy-handed slapstick approach. There is sex under a very long buffet table. The male chorus includes randy old men, one in a wheelchair and another with a zimmer frame, who keep falling over.
The waltzing couples are severely cramped for space. The professional dancers look very camp in their camp shorts. The can-can at Chez Maxim’s is tame by Moulin Rouge standards.
Sarah Tynan wears costumes which belong to a much later period and her voice is too light for the Coliseum. She sings Vitja whilst sitting on a half-moon hung above the stage.
April de Angelis’ script has both heroines screaming, “Shit!” Scene-stealing Gerard Carey as the embassy secretary works very hard for his laughs and gets the biggest laugh when he declares, “The shit hits the fan!”.
The piss de résistence is the show-stopping, “Who can tell what the hell women are?” which is sung by a male septet whilst standing at a line of gent’s urinals.