Yes, I went to see Opera North’s new production of The Merry Widow at the weekend. It was great, marred only by a mysterious smell of garlic mushrooms wafting through the upper circle. I had a brief qualm as it opened, having been lulled by a CD into not quite realizing how far the show is “Gilbert and Sullivan Do Ruritania”. The plot, the court, the silly clothes**, the tendency to break into random folkdance, and the overwhelming sense of it all being a bit old-fashioned, even with a new – and very good – translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey***. Fortunately (and I say this as someone who gets a great deal of enjoyment out of G&S), Lehár is a magnificent tunesmith. Almost every moment is hummable, and those that aren’t are so because they are too complicated, at least for me to pick up on a first run. The whole thing was well-staged, well sung, and well danced.
The plot is – well, this is opera. There are operas that exquisitely marry music, lyrics, and plot, and then there’s the other 95%. For those of you not familiar with the story, merry widow Hanna Glawari has come to Paris, rumour has it in search of a husband. But her late husband was so rich that if she takes his money out of the country (Ruritania here being played by Pontevedro) by marrying a foreigner the economy will collapse. Cue embassy shenanigans**** to put off eager Frenchmen and persuade her to marry her a red-blooded Pontevedrian. The only hitch is that the obvious candidate, the unfortunately named Count Danilo Danilowitch, previously dumped her on command of his guardian for not having enough money... Of course, they are still madly in love with one another, but she’s angry, and he’s afraid that if he shows interest she will assume he’s only doing it for the cash. Much angst ensues. Oh, and there’s lots and lots of dancing.
You could make a subtle, psychologically complex novel out of the romance (if not Pontevedro). Of course, this is operetta, so any subtlety is achieved only for brief seconds, but ludicrous as the whole thing is – and the compulsory second romance sub-plot – it ends up being quite touching. I know, I know, inside I am soppy as a flannel, and very bad at hiding it. Off work with a cold at the start of the week, naturally I ended up watching clips on YouTube, which – as the sort of child who cleared the library of every illustrated Arthurian Legends book at once to see how they did it – I found fascinating.
This one , courtesy of Hamburg State Opera is my favourite: updated to a sort of 30s-contemporary, complete with random army vehicle, marching jackboots (opera does like the Edwardian fascist aesthetic) and a trouser-less Danilo, the trailer makes it look as if it really works (I am baffled by the random skipping, but can make a stab at where the gymnastic horse comes in). I love the final duet to the Euros backdrop. If any German speakers on my Flist can tell me if it is available on video (there are cameras everywhere in the trailer, though I fear they may be part of the set), I’d be very grateful.
But opera wouldn’t be opera if some bizarre choices weren’t made on occasion... There’s this one, with Act 1 finale Danilo looking like he’s dressed as a spaceman. That goes quite nicely with this version of the Act 2 finale marred only by the fact that it appears to be staged on a classic Doctor Who set. Also, I think I've seen half a dozen different Danilos in that same side-burned wig. Or there's this Random Father Christmas (the 2 minute mark) - and if you’re running off into a helicopter together at the end of Act 1 it doesn’t really seem that the relationship needs to do much more (though I like the tarts, because Maxim’s is actually a brothel). This one is not funny at all, except for my realization that Bo Skovhus is built like a brick shithouse *****, and Karita Mattila is great. If you notice a glaring absence in all the above, I must finally confess that I find Vilja a bit dull.
If I am prepared to drive up in the evening, I think I can manage to fit in another performance just before Christmas.
*As a native English speaker, I find this one of the less romantic sounding romantic song titles in existence.
**Danilo and Zeta ought to have had danger money for their national costumes, though this seems to apply to all productions.
*** Which made understanding the lyrics of Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist schwer not actually grim, but indeed very funny.
****It’s the only word.
*****I’d normally use the shed euphemism here, but it just doesn’t apply. Just look at those shoulders.