first night

The Merry Widow

Felicity McDowall finds out 'what the hell she thinks' about The Merry Widow.

On Thursday night I braved the blizzard for the opportunity to see the operetta The Merry Widow performed by Durham Opera Ensemble in the atmospheric great hall at Castle college and I was not disappointed.

The operetta is based on the French comedy L'attaché d'ambassade with music composed by Franz Lehár and tells the humorous tale of a rich widow, Hana Glawari (Charlotte La Thrope) who many of the courtiers pursue to keep her wealth in the region of Pontevedro. As well as some affairs this offers intrigue and comedy and ponders the complexities of women. It is also highly accessible to all, as it has been translated to English by Jeremy Sams and offers something for everyone.
The set was minimal with the national flag hanging in front of the curtain, no backdrop and some furniture set up with simple lighting that was very effective in such a limited space. I was gripped from the start as the cast paraded in wearing period costume and drinking from multi-coloured champagne flutes. This immediately presented the lavish opulent setting of the operetta and the licentiousness nature of the characters. This luxuriousness was further reflected in the extravagant costumes. Indeed, La Thrope’s dress in Act 2 was the epitome of elegance.
This operetta is almost unique in its large amount of script, so required both a high level of singing and acting from the very talented cast. Unfortunately, the script was quite wooden in some places but Njegus (Freddie Herman) and Count Danillo (Jordan Colton) managed to rescue the script and maintained the overall jovial tone of the piece.  Herman provided the comic relief, with his exaggerated facial expressions and reactions almost in pantomime fashion.  While Colton made the perfect perplexed Danilo who loves Hana but finds that women “are like a jigsaw”, his commanding stage presence made him captivating. Other memorable performances came from Charlotte La Thrope as the widow whose beautiful solos was truly mesmerising and emotive; although, at times her words were lost, detracting from the power of her songs. However, Elen Lloyd Roberts as Valencienne the “respectable wife” of Baron Zeta put in a very convincing performance as Camille’s lover. Her songs with Camille (Alex Banfield) were humorous yet touching and evoked sympathy for the lovers. The chorus were also incredibly talented singers, but their over-animated facial expressions and gestures did let them down.
My favourite scene came at the beginning of Act 3, in which Hana is hosting a garden party. The scene begins with the lights down and the stage is lit purely by candlelight from the tables. This ambient scene further reinforces the opulence in the play, as the courtiers are drinking and enjoying themselves with musical accompaniment from the orchestra superbly conducted by Matthew Howes. The female chorus members then came on as ‘grisettes’ who perform a wonderfully choreographed can-can by Rebecca Meltzer. There were also beautiful moments when the male chorus sang together, most notably in Act 2 as they sing a wonderfully uplifting song about the complexities of women. Yet, the female mind still remains a mystery to the men as they end the operetta still questioning, “who can tell what the hell she thinks”. 
Overall, braving the snow to see this operetta was definitely worth it, as this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend The Merry Widow for anyone wanting to venture into the world of opera for the first time. Due to its highly vibrant script and colourful characters, it offers both a very accessible and enjoyable performance. The operetta is further complemented by a very capable cast who sing their way through with ease and are truly enchanting throughout.
Felicity McDowall

14 February 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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