The Merry Widow is the vintage champagne of the operetta world: sparkling, romantic, witty and with that tinge of sharpness to remind us of how topical bankruptcy of a country in a European context still is today. Sung in English and laced with contemporary references to the Irish economy and disgraced bankers, Lyric Opera Dublin put on an engaging, fast-paced production of Lehár’s masterpiece replete with charm and good humour.

<i>The Merry Widow</i> © NCH
The Merry Widow

The National Concert Hall is not the usual venue for opera in Dublin and yet, director and set designer, Vivian Coates constructed the stage in an artful and imaginative manner notwithstanding the limited resources of Lyric Opera. Four free standing colonnades with artistic designs dotted the stage convincingly representing the anteroom of the Pontevedrian Embassy in Act I while the large, ornate windows which were added for Act II and III immediately suggested Hanna Glawari’s mansion. White tie and ball gowns, medals and diamonds were de rigueur for the first and last acts, and traditional Mittel European dress for the middle one.  

To adapt a Jane Austen quotation, “every lady in possession of a large fortune shall never be short of admirers” and so it was with the merry widow of Pontevedro. Inheriting 20 million francs does come with its inconveniences though, as the pestering gallants swarmed around the widow Glawari continually in Act I, strewing themselves most dramatically across the embassy floor. Vocally and visually, Emma Walsh made for a most satisfying Hanna Glawari. Possessed of a pearly voice, Walsh sang with pellucid diction, hitting all the notes with ninja-like accuracy. Her Vilja song was exquisitely sung, soaring up to the top notes effortlessly and the song “Jogging in a one-horse gig” was delightfully coquettish. Yet overall there was a tentativeness to Walsh’s characterization of Glawari which meant that she failed to put her stamp on the show as befits the cynosure of Pontevedrian society and the operetta as a whole. There was a lack of chemistry between herself and Count Danilo too but this I suspect was more due to the latter’s non-demonstrative nature. Phillippe Castagner sang Danilo competently and sincerely but lacked the lothario-like devil-may-care swagger and the oozing confidence of the alpha male who is accustomed to the swooning of women at his magnetism. His storming off to Maxim’s at the end of Act II smacked more of the righteous anger of the virtuous lover wronged and not of the volcanic outburst of the disgruntled roué foiled. Where he did succeed was in the love duet in Act III which he imbued with touchingly tender emotion.

The same stiltedness seemed to affect Patrick Hyland in his portrayal of Camille de Rosillon. His is a young, pleasing voice, with great potential but his acting was wooden and his repeated declarations of love throughout the operetta increasingly desperate and unconvincing. Rachel Croash’s Valencienne, the Baron Zeta’s wife whom Camille is clumsily trying to seduce, had plenty of oomph and coquettish appeal. And if in the second act there was a momentary forgetfulness of lines, this did not detract in the least from a thoroughly convincing performance of the erring wife.

Both the Baron Zeta, Tony Finnegan, and his amanuensis Njegus, Jimmy Dixon, deserve honourable mentions. Both possessed impeccable comic timing and Finnegan as the cuckolded husband showed himself capable of switching from pompous ambassador to opportunist self-proclaimed divorcé with a good dose of ironic self-reflection. Dixon never failed to play up the lascivious innuendos in his part too, much to general amusement.

A special mention must go to the Irish National Youth Ballet who provided entertaining folk dances in Act II, graceful ballet at the beginning of Act III and a saucy frisson with their can-can towards the end of the operetta. The six grisettes (Frou Frou, Lou Lou etc) in Act III were suitably pert with their leader giving a flirty interjection in a very faux-French accent (“et moi?”).

The Lyric Opera Orchestra under the baton of Kenneth Rice provided an excellent backing to the singers. It helped that all singers were miked (though not all evenly miked – Danilo at one stage was considerably softer than Hanna) so there was never any chance of the orchestra drowning them out. The orchestral interlude of Act I for instance was most impressively done as the orchestra was sufficiently restrained to suggest the ball-like mood but not interfere with the action on stage.

All in all, this was a charming production and well worth going to hear this week.