Merriment aplenty in Cal McCrystal’s Merry Widow at Glyndebourne


By Dominic Lowe, 11 June 2024

Sugar, swirls of silk and saucers of champagne abound in the decadent excess of Glyndebourne’s new production of Lehár’s biggest hit, The Merry Widow. Polite society be damned, there’s more sexual energy on stage than in a dubious television hook-up show – and the gags are better too.

This new production of the 1905 operetta is entrusted to Cal McCrystal, whose take on Le Comte Ory at Garsington a couple of years ago was side-splittingly funny and visually astonishing – no surprise coming from a director with such a pedigree in physical theatre (among other things, he’s been involved in Cirque du Soleil). McCrystal brings those same qualities to bear here in a production that is so lush it could have originated from Disney, supplemented by a new English libretto courtesy of Marcia Bellamy and Stephen Plaice. The production opens with the actor Tom Edden, playing Njegus, setting the audience up with a few wisecracks, before a cinematic opening leads into the gorgeous Pontevedrian Embassy. Gary McCann’s designs are stunning, a riot of lilacs and golds with a three-framed set focusing the eyes. From the embassy in Act 1 to the magnificent rear of the Glawari villa in Act 2 and on to the lush interior of Chez Maxim in Act 3, every scene demands a gasp.

The production relies on Carrie-Ann Ingrouille’s pinpoint choreography, a selection of staple gags (including a sex doll) and sharp dialogue; it’s a combination that on the whole is fiendishly successful, but cannot always sustain a fairly thin plot. Act 1 is a particular problem where some trimming to the libretto would have been welcome – it’s too turgid and the spoken text far outweighs the music. On exiting in the first interval, there was perplexity from those who thought they were coming to see an opera, “not a play with some music”. Those reservations aside, there is a huge amount to enjoy: highbrow this is not, but McCrystal provides enough theatrical flair to make this a lavish fin de siècle style triumph.

The big casting news for this production was the title role being taken by the chatelaine of Glyndebourne herself, Danielle de Niese. She has superb history in this kind of production, bringing the complete package – voice, stage charisma and a physical flair that was more than sufficient for McCrystal’s demands. A slight unevenness in the first act – it seemed to take a little time for her voice to relax – soon disappeared and her vivid, colourful soprano was at its best in duets with Germán Olvera’s Danilo. This was an accomplished assumption of the role, interpreted with De Niese’s customary sense of fun. Olvera’s baritone left me slightly unmoved in Glyndebourne’s Figaro back in 2022, but he was on particularly fine form as the suave but unhappy Count Danilovich. There’s a varnished sheen to his voice which, paired with elegiac phrasing, gave a moving sense of poetry to Olvera’s performance. Regret, lust and an assumed nonchalance all fired his interpretation of the character to make for a passionate finale.

The idea that Sir Thomas Allen is nearly an octogenarian would be absurd to those watching his performance as Baron Zeta; Allen’s nimble footwork in a little number he was forced to perform thrice (a rivalry with Edden’s Njegus is a running gag) would put most of the audience to shame. Allen remains a natural creature of the stage, bringing both humour and a deep sense of pathos as his windbag of an ambassador is forced to confront infidelity on the home front. His straying wife, Valencienne, was adroitly sung by Soraya Mafi who managed to bring emotional intelligence through an absurdly thick French accent reminiscent of a Carry On film. Light, but varied in tone, flexible at the top, her soprano was a fine match to tenor Michael McDermott’s pale Camille.

What a treat, too, to have John Wilson in the pit, for whom this music is so natural. Frothy and effervescent, fine-tuned and yet with a sense of spontaneity, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra gilded the production at every musical moment. With some judicious cutting of text – and possibly switching the position of intervals – this could well be a hit for Glyndebourne for years to come.



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