The Merry Widow, Glyndebourne: Danielle de Niese shines in a stunning, if jokey, production

10 June 2024

The Merry Widow in this most rarified of country-house settings? She may not entirely belong here, but this staging sweeps you along even so

As opera companies seek to broaden their audiences and expand their repertory, the pressing question is: just what is an opera now…

s opera companies seek to broaden their audiences and expand their repertory, the pressing question is: just what is an opera now? It is a long time since our national companies began to include musicals and light opera in their seasons, but how far to go?

So far, the Royal Opera has not originated any Gilbert and Sullivan, leaving that to ENO, but it did do Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Opera North has been a leader in presenting musicals since its Show Boat with the RSC, and just this week unveiled My Fair Lady in a collaboration with Leeds Playhouse. The barriers are down, and it seems that any show that needs some great singers and an orchestra qualifies.

But The Merry Widow in the rarified aura of Glyndebourne? The company did tackle this famous 1905 operetta for a few concert performances when their theatre was shut (narrated by Dirk Bogarde, no less). And the piece has featured in many opera house repertories both here and abroad, so it is an operetta that already counts as a pseudo-opera. It must have seemed a logical leavening of the modern Glyndebourne offer, and to direct it they have chosen the current man of the moment for G&S at English National Opera: Cal McCrystal, whose HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe have been runaway successes there. But does it fit the ethos of this usually ultra-serious house?

With a touch of early cinema about the sets, the show looks stunning, and I hope there are some co-producers in the wings to share the costs of Gary McGann’s sumptuous costumes for the Act II garden party thrown by the merry widow herself, Hanna Glawari. But the story that unfolds is quite silly, especially in the new English versification by Stephen Plaice and Marcia Bellamy. There’s a clear acknowledgment that we may find the piece a bit unusual in these surroundings in the jokey warm-up act that Tom Edden, who plays Njegus, is sent on to do at the start, and it certainly helps prepare us for McCrystal’s broad approach to the humour.

Danielle de Niese is a flamboyant, extrovert and youngish widow, sounding great and well matched with Germán Olvera as Danilo, the best singer on stage. Their on-off romance is played out alongside the extra-marital tease of Valencienne (the excellent Soraya Mafi) and the Count Camille de Rosillon (a stiff Michael McDermott), whose shadowy antics in the orangery cause general hilarity. Too many of these jokes, of which there are not quite enough, are school of English music-hall, and there is thus a big problem of tone as the waltz-dominated, languorous beauty of the music, lovingly delivered by the London Philharmonic under John Wilson, seems to yearn for a more elegant European spirit.

Making an assured appearance as Baron Zeta of Pontevedro, the country whose monetary crisis underpins what there is of a plot, the remarkable Thomas Allen brings true operatic kudos to the show in a substantial dialogue role, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s weakness; he is surrounded by a galaxy of jokey servants, energetic dancers, and a chorus that would not disgrace the grandest opera. For all her glamour, this Merry Widow may not totally belong here, but it’s easy to be swept along by the expertise and exuberance of her show.


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