Opera North's Leeds season, which includes The Merry Widow, is one in which most of the operas are linked by the theme of ‘Before War and After’ because of the imminence of the centenary of the Armistice. A frothy, familiar operetta from the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which first came to the stage barely a decade before the start of the Great War, it can’t have been a difficult choice, especially as next in line is Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, about the Christmas truce of 1914. This production, a revival from 2010, makes every effort to avoid presenting the story of the rich widow from a little country which is at risk of running out of money as a mere period piece. Although it is packed with well-known tunes and plenty of dancing, the audience might not become fully engaged in the absence of appropriate contemporary references, or so the thinking goes.

Quirijn de Lang (Danilo) and Máire Flavin (Hanna Glawari) © Robert Workman
Quirijn de Lang (Danilo) and Máire Flavin (Hanna Glawari)
© Robert Workman

The set is a tribute to Art Nouveau, with curves, circles, flock wallpaper, cut-out chandeliers and a collection of nude female statues which appear to be inspired by the eight bronze nymphs in Leeds City Square, which have been holding up lamps since the Edwardian era... with the difference that the stage versions are raunchier. The English libretto, adapted from the original by Kit Hesketh-Harvey in collaboration with director Giles Havergal, is unlike some of its predecessors in that it relates strongly to today’s speech, with occasional clunkiness, and a mention of crooked bankers which raises laughs. I found some of the dialogue and stage business associated with extra-marital intrigues and sexual configurations to be tedious and unfunny (not the fault of this translation). The singing is another matter.

Soprano Máire Flavin sings Hanna Glawari, the widow from the fictitious country of Pontevedra whose wealth is sought after by numerous would-be lovers. She has great poise and elegant presence as she is surrounded by predatory men on the make. Her warm voice hit the heights with precision and she sang the famous ‘Vilja-Lied’ with great emotional force. Baritone Quirijn de Lang, her true lover and partner in the end, is a terrific Danilo, his notes in the upper register perfectly delivered. The sweetness of his voice, especially in "I’m off to Chez Maxim" in Act 1, makes him a convincingly amiable playboy, though I found the chemistry between him and Hanna to be a little less credible. Surprisingly, he actually looked dignified in fake-folky Pontevedrian costume, supposedly based on the national dress of Montenegro.

Alex Otterburn (Cascada), Máire Flavin (Hanna Glawari) and Alex Banfield (St Brioche) © Robert Workman
Alex Otterburn (Cascada), Máire Flavin (Hanna Glawari) and Alex Banfield (St Brioche)
© Robert Workman

Geoffrey Dolton bustled about with pantomimic zeal as genial old Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador in Paris who wants Hanna to keep her cash in the home country by marrying a compatriot. Tenor Nicholas Watts and soprano Amy Freston as Camille de Rosillon and Valencienne Zeta are reunited as a couple, having played the Defendant and the Plaintiff in Trial by Jury for Opera North a year ago. His lyric tenor was beautiful, and her dancing was extraordinarily athletic, especially when she joined the grisettes for the can-can at Maxim’s: these are a little terrifying, rather like a mad hen party in Leeds city centre on a Saturday night, but the ensemble work by the chorus was impressive, as usual. Its male members excelled in the closely-choreographed (Stuart Hopps choreographer) "Women! Women! Women!" in Act 2.

Quirijn de Lang (Danilo) with members of the Chorus of Opera North © Robert Workman
Quirijn de Lang (Danilo) with members of the Chorus of Opera North
© Robert Workman

The performance improved steadily from a rather slow start, quickly gathering pace to reach an energetic peak in the final act. Conductor Martin André was sensitive to the more subtle sections of the orchestration, and naturally the waltzes got the full treatment. I am sure that most of its audiences do not think too hard about The Merry Widow as an artistic product of a waning Belle Époque in the years before the catastrophe took place, but as a spectacular entertainment for people in any period who dream of mingling with the rich and powerful, or perhaps of winning the lottery so that they can dine at Maxim’s. 

***11