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The Merry Widow
A three act ballet danced to the music of Franz Lehár; music adapted by John Lanchbery
Choreography by Ronald Hynd
Widow Hanna Glawari - Karen Kain
Count Danilo - John Meehan
Valencienne - Yoko Ichino
Camille - Raymond Smith
Baron Zeta - Charles Kirby
Njegus - Jacques Gorrisen
Undersecretaries - Owen Montague; Dewi Fairclough
Maitre - David Alan
Enraged client - Victoria Bertram
The National Ballet of Canada
The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra/Ermanno Florio
rec. MacMillan Theatre of the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, 1987
Picture format: 4:3
Resolution: 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Sound format: PCM stereo
Blu-ray Disc, 25 GB (single layer)
Region: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109130 [88:00]

There are some ballets that will never, I imagine, see the light of day on DVD and, with some confidence, I'd nominate Richard Strauss's Schlagobers among them. In the case of the composer's earlier attempt at the form Josephslegende, there's still the very occasional live performance, a few CD recordings have been released over the years (see here for an overview of releases up until 2013 and here for a subsequent 2014 release). There's even an enjoyable filmed version that’s become something of a classic (Deutsche Grammophon / Unitel Classica 00440 073 4315). However Schlagobers continues to linger in relative obscurity.

The main reason is, I think, the musical language that Strauss deployed when he wrote it: whereas anyone who loves Ein Heldenleben, the Sinfonia domestica or the Alpine symphony will feel immediately at home in Josephlegende's lushly exotic sound-world, Schlagobers lacks its stablemate's instantly dramatic appeal to the gut. Moreover, even the title Schlagobers - Whipped cream in English - counts against the work, subliminally conveying as it does something rather too sickly sweet that should only be consumed in small amounts.

I confess to feeling a somewhat similar sense of overindulgence when watching this ballet version of The merry widow. Although it's comparatively short and the storyline has been somewhat simplified, its overloaded sugar content would have the government's Chief Medical Officer ordering it into plain packaging before you could say "heart disease!"

The trouble is those tunes. While he wasn't quite a one-hit-show wonder, Lehár put a hugely disproportionate number of his most memorable melodies into The merry widow so that, even after a full hour of the production, yet another one arrives unannounced to get you tapping your feet, dancing away to one of the composer’s whirligig waltzes or approximating a few steps en pointe around the coffee table … and such melodies they are too. The Merry Widow waltz is merely the best known of them, closely followed by such other familiar offerings as the hauntingly evocative Vilja and that jaunty anthem to Parisian debauchery Da geh' ich zu Maxim.

Taken individually, each of those is something of a classic, but deployed as relentlessly as they are here in John Lanchbery's adaptation of Lehár’s score - and accompanying, moreover, a virtually continuous exhibition of on-stage hyperactivity and hi-jinks - they assault the senses continuously and quite mercilessly in a tidal wave of agitated honey. Working to commission and exclusively from the score of Lehár’s 1905 operetta, poor Mr Lanchbery can’t be blamed although just an occasional challenging note or two of musical acerbity would have lent some agreeable contrast. This could have put the syrupy elements into a more varied context and thereby increased their emotional impact. I’d also have welcomed a scene set in an art gallery, a church or anywhere, in fact, where waltzes, Eastern European folk dances and the can-can are prohibited. Like Viennese Sachertorte, this Merry Widow ballet is an enjoyable confection rather than a nourishing meal; one gooey slice at a time is a treat, but it’s quite enough to be going on with.

Not everyone, though, will agree with me. Ronald Hynd's choreography, premiered in 1975, has proved very popular, especially, it seems, with sweet-toothed audiences in the USA where it's rather more regularly performed than in Europe. Its many fans will no doubt be delighted with an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with this particular performance, now coming up to its thirtieth birthday but presented here in a newly upscaled High Definition Blu-ray makeover.

Karen Kain and John Meehan make a most engaging Widow and Count Danilo, while Yoko Ichino and Raymond Smith are kept very busy in their substantial secondary roles. All four are accomplished dancers and successfully convey the appropriate degree of comic high-spirits that the ballet requires. The other featured dancers all acquit themselves creditably and the members of the corps de ballet, flatteringly costumed in the gorgeous fashions of the Belle Époque, throw themselves into successive Pontevedrian and Parisian parties and balls with suitable enthusiasm and skill. Ermanno Florio leads the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra in an assured performance that adds both verve and glitter to Lehár's familiar melodies.

The picture resolution on this new Blu-ray disc has been upscaled to 1080i High Definition. While the resulting image quality is quite some way away from the highest standards that we expect to see as a matter of course today, the process has probably produced the best version of this recording that we are ever likely to see. The sound quality is of more than acceptable quality given the original recording's age.

There is a strong competitor to this performance in the form of a 1997 account from the Australian Ballet, the company for which The merry widow was originally commissioned. It stars Lisa Pavane and Steven Heathcote in the leading roles (Quantum Leap QLDVD 6013). If you already own that one, I don't know that you need to replace it with this Canadian version. The latter may well, however, appeal to Blu-Ray enthusiasts who insist on having their discs in the highest possible quality.

Rob Maynard



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