Lehár’s Merry Widow: the Mamma Mia! of its Age

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Lehár: The Merry Widow (a semi-staged concert version directed by Simon Butteriss): soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra, John Wilson     (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.12.2012. (JPr)

John Wilson – (c)Chris Christodoulou

As someone who is half-Viennese and has seen Lehár’s 1905 operetta at the Vienna Volksoper and elsewhere, it is clear to me that is it just an entertaining piece of Viennese froth. It was fascinating, therefore, to read Gavin Plumley’s programme note that tried to imbue it with fin-de-siècle psycho-sexual depths that clearly are not relevant. He also suggested that it is distanced from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, composed some 30 years earlier, because of the influence of Richard Strauss and Puccini on the music, and neither is this very discernible. As the Mamma Mia! of its age it is just what it is – a crowd-pleasing echo of the resonant energy of Vienna’s Imperial heyday, mixing together self-aware nostalgia, slyness and sophistication with some glorious melodies, including waltzes, galops, the can-can and folk tunes. Viktor Léon and Leo Stein’s libretto is full of broad humour, with its familiar themes of marital infidelity and unrequited love.

It is a typically ridiculous plot that does not differ much from those of many another operetta. We are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris, when near-bankrupt European countries — like the fictional Pontevedro here — spared no expense to schmooze a wealthier nation like France. The source of Pontevedro’s imminent financial ruin is the widow Hanna Glawari, the country’s sole remaining moneyed citizen who is in the French capital to find a husband. If she marries anyone but a Pontevedrian the country will lose her fortune and go bust. The Pontevedrian embassy parties away with an ensemble of cheating wives and philandering husbands — even Valencienne, the wife of Ambassador Baron Zeta, has embarked on an affair with Camille, Count de Rosillon. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be-bankrupt state, while Hanna is pursued – for her money – by all the unmarried men in Paris she has set her heart on her country’s most eligible bachelor, Count Danilo Danilowitsch. Inconveniently, he is a roué, unwilling to commit … but we have already seen too many of the twentieth-century’s clichéd musicals not to know where this – one of their antecedents – is going.

The Merry Widow differs from opera in that much of the story is usually told through dialogue. Here this was overcome by Simon Butteriss, who was credited as the director of the semi-staging we saw, creating a narration that he recounted in his minor role as Njegus, Confidential Secretary to the Embassy. As such he was very much at the centre of all the intrigue, and the best person to bring us all the new gossip and goings-on; he notes it is his duty to ‘look through the keyhole’. There was a refined wit to his contributions, even if as time went on he did seem to be on stage more than any of the other more important characters. There were updated European insolvency jokes such as he has heard that ‘1906 is going to be a prosperous year, I’ve just been tipped the wink by the Greek Ambassador’ and how ‘The Merry Widow is our Gross Domestic Product.’ His best running gag was his redefining of the errant Embassy wives as the ‘diplomatic bags’!

Back to the printed programme; it mentioned surtitles by Jonathan Burton that suggested that maybe once it had been the idea to perform The Merry Widow in its original German. I suspect the translation we could all read and ‘hear’ sung was by Jeremy Sams but as far as I could see he got no credit and neither did the origins of the sumptuous period costumes the cast wore.

Why did I write ‘hear’? Well … throughout Act I it was difficult to know what was being sung without reading the surtitles as the full-sized Philharmonia Orchestra seemingly played much too loud for the generally lightweight young voices struggling to be heard. John Wilson was in his element in this music, giving it plenty of Viennese lilt and sway and making it fizz like fine Champagne. Had he put a few of the female members in dirndls it would have been a passable impersonation of the schmaltzy André Rieu and his Orchestra. Unfortunately the fairly full Royal Festival Hall was populated with an audience whose average age was probably over 60 and I doubt many heard much of what the cast sang because of the poor balance between voices and orchestra before the interval.

Something then must have been said because for Acts II and III things improved immensely. I am certain the orchestra was quieter but there now appeared to be an element of amplification for the singers though no microphones were visible. I can only suggest some technology was involved because the volume from the singers did not appear to be compromised by from what side of the stage they sang or what way they turned. Perhaps rehearsal time had been limited but I thought this should have been sorted out then.

One of my best memories of The Merry Widow in the vernacular was with English National Opera in the mid-1980s with illustrious names such as Eric Shilling (Baron Zeta), Lesley Garrett (Valencienne), Valerie Masterson (Hanna Glawari), Bonaventura Bottone (Camille) and Alan Opie as Count Danilo, conducted by a Viennese veteran, Herbert Prikopa. Nearly 30 years on, the always reliable Alan Opie was a grizzled – but still young-at-heart – Baron Zeta, and I wished Lehár had given him more to sing. Unfortunately the rest of the cast, though clearly accomplished and with plenty of potential, had the youthful exuberance of a talented group of artists from one of our leading conservatoires, such as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Hanna was Claudia Boyle, and the erstwhile infatuated and jilted Count Danilo was sung by Daniel Prohaska. Both had an abundance of handsome charm but that is as far as it went and there was little recognisable sexual tension between them to make me really care whether they finally confessed their love for each other. Boyle certainly lacked any sense of the haughty grandeur her character demands, though her voice gave a suitable radiance to her Act II signature ‘Vilja’. Hanna and Danilo should develop an endearing chemistry that slowly simmers from their first Act I waltz to their kiss in Act III, letting love win without cloying sentimentality – but there was no real connection between them in this semi-staging.

The subplot of Baron Zeta’s ‘respectable wife’ Valencienne (Sarah Tynan) and her suitor Camille, Count de Rosillon (Nicholas Sharratt) seemed somewhat diminished and once again any chemistry between them appeared non-existent. Tynan’s voice was light and lyrical and Sharratt also sang well without making any great impression. Good support came from Oliver Dunn and Anthony Gregory as the diplomats, Vicomte Cascada and Raoul de St Brioche; from six enthusiastic Grisettes doing the can-can and from the Philharmonia Voices.

Perhaps the memorable highlight was the all-male high stepping chorus line for ‘What To Think, What To Say, What To Do’ in Act II and this had the panache and true style the rest of this matinee performance lacked. As Njegus concludes at the very end about all concerned, thinking especially about the side-lined Camille ‘They all live reasonably happily ever after’ … and I left the Royal Festival Hall reasonably happy myself.

 Jim Pritchard

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