Performing in the large and inviting Esplanade Theatre to an audience disappointingly thin in number, a cast of international principals sparkled amongst a talented and enthusiastic local ensemble in Singapore Lyric Opera’s new production of The Merry Widow. Despite the many entertaining moments, however, the production wobbled along, crippled by its two-dimensional vision of Franz Lehár’s much-loved and often performed operetta.

Kishani Jayasinghe (Hanna Glawari) © Singapore Lyric Opera | Bernie Ng
Kishani Jayasinghe (Hanna Glawari)
© Singapore Lyric Opera | Bernie Ng

Premiering in 1905 during the revolutionary artistic years of the Viennese Secession, The Merry Widow was an instant success. Plump with music reflecting nostalgic popularity rather than contemporary innovations, The Merry Widow sits in a period of operetta where pretences evaporated and social satire gave way to more sentimental and a somewhat frivolous, egalitarian entertainment.

Certainly, the entertainment was plentiful as director David Edwards shifted the story (to save the fictitious Grand Duchy of Pontevedro from bankruptcy) a smidge further in time to 1920s Paris. On the broad stage, however, Aaron Christopher Yap’s restrained set provided neither compelling evidence of the era nor opportunity for the varied fragmented scenes to blossom within each act. 

A spindly-balustraded staircase, scrolling down a half-level parallel to the stage, formed the centrepiece. This was complemented by a large, shallow-arched opening, scant ambassadorial or festive trimmings and cold, reception-hall chairs. Adrian Tan's lighting design, though plentiful in mood, became confused by rear projections of patterned colour. It was only in Moe Kasim's sumptuously colourful costumes that the 1920s came to life. Together with stylish period costumes of Act I, plain and patterned lilac, lime and baby-blue hues splashed the stage in 'traditional Pontevedrin' folk-costumed splendour during Act II, and dinner suits and frocks of red velvet and sequins added to the splendour of Act III’s flavour of Maxim's. 

Against the long line of the stage, Edwards’ tendency to bring all main soloists’ actions to the front, and spreading the large chorus of Parisians and Pontevedrins behind, made the first act feel tedious. Characters acted more to the audience than to each other, blocking created too much distance between their exchanges and a lack of spark between the long dialogue deliveries (which incorporated some local-relevance in its English translation) didn’t help. Proceedings changed markedly in Act II and III, assisted by the momentum of Jeffrey Tan’s vibrantly choreographed festivities. It was only when the masses left the stage that the chemistry between Edwards’ main characters finally came alive.

Kishani Jayasinghe (Hanna Glawari) © Singapore Lyric Opera | Bernie Ng
Kishani Jayasinghe (Hanna Glawari)
© Singapore Lyric Opera | Bernie Ng

While Act I slipped away in unspectacular form, Acts II and III drove home lively, talented and entertaining results. Fortunately, a night of evenly matched performances from the role-suited principals sustained the energy released from a string of musical gems. 

Rich and creamy-voiced, soprano Kishani Jayasinghe was an enticing Hanna Glawari. Wealthy, widowed and seemingly carefree, Jayasinghe elegantly paraded her independence all the way to her finely speckled high notes. Demonstrating a lustrous middle range in her rendition of the "Vilja Song" Jayasinghe expressed throbbing sentimental beauty.

Nicholas Ransley was a dapper, cucumber-cool Count Danilo Danilovich, his warm-voiced, youthful lyric tenor resonating with appealing force. Together, Jayasinghe and Ransley slowly revealed their magnetism, realised with conviction in their duets, especially so as they can finally declare themselves in love with the lyrics "All the world’s in love with love and I love you", thus saving Pontevedro in the process.

Tiffany Speight battered her eye-lids with flirtatious playfulness and shined with her brightly-voiced soprano as Valencienne. Ashley Catling portrayed Camille de Rosillon suavely with his mellow-voiced tenor and John Bolton Wood as Baron Mirko Zeta lubricated the evening with his oaky-voiced baritone and genial warmth. The smaller roles of Vicomte Cascada and Raoul de St Brioche, two of Hanna’s many admirers, were filled with tons of local, vocal vigour by Melvin Tan and Jeremy Koh respectively. As Njegus, the Baron Zeta's secretary, Steven Ang stretched his comic prowess a little beyond the call of duty.

Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus padded the stage with captivating colour and fine-voiced song. The men's chorus particularly stood out, among whom an interspersed quintet of harmonic voices singing a Filipino love-song brought both surprise and tenderness.

It was all drawn together with luscious, exacting playing from the attentive musicians of the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra. Conductor Timothy Carey crafted Lehár's jolly score with a bright tone and an easy but bouncy pace. All sections of the orchestra filled the theatre commendably with a fullness and depth of sound, with especially impressive, crisp brass and warm woodwind playing.

The promise of 1920s Paris, however, felt weighed down by uninspired directorship. If I could have revelled in the charm of a period long past without the misgivings of this production I’d have wholeheartedly supported the intentions. In this case, rather than mire the story in weak associations, a clever, more contemporary, even wildly wacky interpretation would have been far more easily digested.