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Merry Widow makes for a brilliant evening



Review by David Munro

ALTHOUGH The Merry Widow and the name of Franz Lehar are irrevocably linked, in fact, it was a marriage which might never have happened.

When Leon and Stein first created their libretto, it was intended for Richard Heuberger, who had enjoyed an enormous success with his Der Opernball – The Opera Ball.

They fashioned a libretto, based on The Attaché d’Ambassade, a comedy by Henri Meilhac - librettist, among other things, for Carmen – whose light tone and Parisian locale made it an ideal subject for the new style operetta pioneered by Heuberger, which dispensed with heavy choruses and high drama, and sought a more intimate style.

However, Heuberger’s attempts at setting the first act did not please them, and they looked around for another composer. Again, Lehar was not their next choice, and he only got the job after he had sent a specimen lyric for approval. That approval was swiftly given and the rest is history.

The original plot of the Attaché, concerning the marriage of a dashing young attaché to a fabulously wealthy widow, in order to preserve her fortune for her native country was retained.

It was, however, embellished by changing the German background to a mythical Ruritanian country, and adding a past broken love match, between the widow and the attaché, and a potentially illicit affaire between the Ambassador’s wife and a Frenchman - and on New Years Eve, 1905, The Merry Widow was born.

Initially, it was not a success and, for the first few weeks in Vienna, the theatre was half-empty. However, the charm of the music, which soon became popular, conquered the public apathy and, by 1907, the year it opened in London, it was being performed all over Germany and Austria.

The operetta has undergone many translation and adaptations over the years. The Carl Rosa version, at the New Wimbledon Theatre, by Jeremy Sams, sticks to Leon and Stein’s original plot, merely updating the dialogue and lyrics and preserving the Belle Epoch flavour of the original.

The result is an intelligent and witty book, accepting the somewhat far-fetched aspects of the plot, and sensible, simple lyrics, which fit the music without sounding fustian or antiquated.

The cast, as a whole, did full justice to Mr Sams’ new libretto. Opera singers, with few exceptions, are not natural actors, and when called upon to deliver lines sound stilted and uncomfortable.

Not in this production; led by Victor Spinetti, as Baron Zeta, the Ambassador, the spoken words came across clearly and convincingly, delivered by a cast who seemed just as at home with the spoken word as they were with the songs.

The scenes between Danilo (Karl Daymond) and Hanna, the widow (Jan Hartley), were amusingly and well acted; they succeeded in getting across the sexual tension between them in an admirably understated manner.

Both are first-class singers, so their duets and solos were dramatically as well as musically effective.

I have seen a myriad Danilos and Widows, including Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth, Cyril Ritchard and Mage Elliott, June Bronhill and Thomas Round, to name but a few, but this was the first time I was, for the course of the evening, truly convinced and carried away by the performances of the parts.

For me, Miss Hartley and Mr Daymond are the widow and Danilo, and I do not anticipate seeing the parts as well played again in my lifetime.

The parts of Camille and Valencienne, the secondary lovers, were in the safe keeping of David Curry and Deborah Myers, respectively.

I must admit to having doubts about them in the first act, when their voices seem a little forced, but these doubts were triumphantly swept away in the second act.

I was sorry that Miss Myers did not lead the Grisettes, in the Maxims scene, as the original libretto called for, but her place was more than adequately filled by Gay Soper, as Prascowia ,who, up until then, had been cattily amusing as an Embassy wife.

Although the rest of the male characters’ functions were, mainly, to provide a background chorus of lovers for the widow, Garth Bardsley, as Cascada, and Daniel Hoadley, as St Brioche, managed to flesh out their thankless parts and come through as distinct characters.

So did Peter Prentice (Bogdanovitch), Trevor Connor (Kromov), and Jonathan Tafler (Njegus), as members of the Embassy staff.

The scenery and costumes, by Hugh Durrant, reflected the grace and opulence of the period, and were an elegant setting for the action, which was admirably staged by Michael McCaffery and his choreographer, Steve Elias.

The chorus, with their faultless singing, never obtruded in that they tended to be on stage in support, when required, and not when the principals required some space.

The staging of the dances and choreographed ensembles showed a lightness of touch one has ceased to expect in productions of Operetta today.

All in all, an evening which was to use the vernacular, brilliant; a widow whom, as the French title would have it, was truly Joyeuse.

The Merry Widow, original book and lyrics by Victor Leon and Leo Stein. New Translation by Jeremy Sams. Music, Franz Lehar; Director, Michael McCaffery; Designer, Hugh Durrant; Lighting, Tina MacHugh; Choreographer, Steve Elias; Musical director, Wyn Davies.
CAST: Victor Spinetti; Jan Hartley; Karl Daymond; Deborah Myers; David Curry; Garth Bardsley; Daniel Hoadley; Peter Prentice; Jacqueline Tate; Trevor Conner; Lesley Cox; Barry Clark; Gay Soper; Jonathan Tafler; Lindy Everett; Pamela Hay; Catherine Friel; Shie Shoui; Barry Clark; James Geer; David Longden; Andrew Overin; Richard Winch; Jacqueline Varsey; Gillian Scott; Stephen Lloyd-Morgan.
The Carl Rosa Company presented by Peter Mulloy.
New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG. Tues, April 27 - Sat, May 1, 2004. Evenings: Tues - Sat, 7.30pm; Matinees: Thurs & Sat, 2.30pm. Box Office 0870 060 1827.

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