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Lehàr, The Merry Widow: (new production in English) soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Michal Klauza, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 8.10.2005 (BK)

 

Lesley Garrett as Hanna Glawari


Over the last ten years or so, in terms of pleasure per travelling mile, my favourite opera companies have been in Helsinki and in Cardiff. Since I live in the UK, I get to Welsh National Opera more than Finland but the equation still balances out nicely.

WNO has launched some fine productions over the last few years, including a magnificent Parsifal, a modern dress Traviata (which unlike some reviewers, I enjoyed enormously) and last season's excellent Ariadne, Wozzeck and Iolanta. It's a genuine delight to have such high-quality opera on my doorstep (more or less) and at its best, there's no doubt that WNO is a world class company.

But things can go sadly wrong on occasions and this Merry Widow was one of them. With very few crêpes joyeuse about and not even much champagne, there's too little gaiety in this version of belle époque Paris. It's leaden, it looks amateurish and some of the cast can't sing.

Donald Maxwell (Baron Zeta ) and Lesley Garrett

A good part of the problem lies in Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's production. Though stating that this is a 'traditional' setting, these experienced opera directors believe that there are real parallels between Hanna Glawari and Richard Strauss's Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier. Both have been hurt in previous relationships, they say, and so the Merry Widow is a 'bitter-sweet' comedy suffused with the genuine elegance of pained people who refuse to show their wounds. With these sentiments though, and with the deliberately seedy depiction of the impoverished Pontevedrian Embassy in Act I and the luridly over-brothelised version of Chez Maxim's in Act III (complete with Egon Schiele paintings), the result is a plodding presentation from which most of the the joy seems to have been perversely extracted.

 

Oh, lighten up gentlemen please, and let's just have fun for once. This is operetta after all, where we all know from the outset that everything turns out fine. We want the tunes, the silly jokes and plain old-fashioned romance - not 'significant' weltschmerz that's good for the soul in the end.

Although Jeremy Sams has done his best with the English translation, there's a deal too much spoken dialogue in this production (especially in the first act) and jokes don't come fast or furious enough to make the action bounce. The result is a kind of slow pantomime delivery in which timing is generally stilted (not to say wooden) so that even the most gifted singer-actors have some difficulty getting their words out. The exception was Geoffrey Dolton whose Adams Family-ish Njegus made the only true comic character of the evening.


The Grisettes, Donald Maxwell and Linda Ormiston (Mme Praskowia)



Lesley Garrett (who looked appropriately glamorous in the costumes designed for her by Agostino Cavalca and who also managed to enter perkily into the originally intended spirit of the piece) sang with great power when needed but clearly was having difficulties in quieter passages. Although ' Vilja ' - the show stopper in Act II - went well enough and though her ensemble singing was also fine, there was a persistent sense that she has been in front of microphones too long. Her judgement of the hall's acoustic seemed to desert her on several occasions: a pity since her performance was otherwise splendid.

Chronic inaudibility was also a problem for some the other principals including Ailish Tynan (Valencienne) unusually, although she too seemed inhibited by the production. But the top prizes for conspicuous vocal absence beyond the call of duty, went unequivocally to Tracey Wellborn (Camille) and to Jeffery Black (Danilo) neither of whom could be called impressive with the best will in the world.

Despite Michal Klauza's spirited conducting and the stalwart contributions of WNO's regulars in the other principal parts, this was the one of the least successful productions I have ever seen at WNO. It caused me to wonder once again (as I have done before) about why the company persists in buying in so many relatively unknown singers for principal parts, when they have such a wealth of talent within their corps of regulars and in their remarkable chorus. This is the practice in Finland where the policy works admirably.

 


Bill Kenny

 

Photographs © Bill Cooper 2005

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