What clever scheduling by Opera North. In the centre of Leeds the snow is turning grey and slushy, the temperature is ridiculously low and it's dark before mid-afternoon, but inside The Grand Theatre it's a different story- a story which seems specifically designed to lift the winter blues. As soon as conductor Wyn Davies strikes up the orchestra for Act I of this new production of Franz Lehar's ever-popular The Merry Widow, and the curtain rises to reveal a colourful feast for the eyes, you know you've come to the right place for a bit of festive cheer.

Allan Clayton as Rosillon and Amy Freston as Valencienne, credit: Alastair Muir, front page photo al
Allan Clayton as Rosillon and Amy Freston as Valencienne, credit: Alastair Muir, front page photo al

For those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing a production of The Merry Widow before, it tells the story of Hanna Glawari, a young woman who has inherited her recently deceased husband's vast fortune. In an effort to keep Hanna's millions in her financially challenged homeland of Pontevedro, the powers that be attempt to find her a new Pontevedrian spouse. This triggers a series of mistaken identities, misunderstandings and the rekindling of a romance between Hanna and her first love, Count Danilo Danilovitch.

First performed in 1905, The Merry Widow is quintessential Edwardian operetta, but in the hands of Opera North it becomes something very visually exciting and stylish. Director Giles Havergal has described it as a period production with an 'edginess' about it, and the set plays a big part in this, consisting of fashionable graphic chandeliers and bright, jewel-like pinks, greens and purples. The costumes are traditional, but brightly coloured and extremely sparkly- they give the rather pleasing effect, against the wonderful backdrop, of lots of little Edwardian paper dolls being moved around a very glamorous dolls house.

The book and lyrics have been updated too, with Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Havergal penning a somewhat modernised English version. For the most part, it is fast-paced and funny, but I must admit to being a little bit disappointed that the embassy setting left them unable to resist a rather obvious Forrero Rocher gag.

The cast are all very entertaining and carry off the required mix of comedy and romance well. Hertfordshire-born soprano Stephanie Corley plays Hanna with a broad northern accent, presumably to emphasise her 'girl from the backwoods' status amongst ambassadors and dignitaries delivering their lines in received pronunciation and purposely hammy French. It's an interesting idea given that it is, after all, Opera North, but I have to admit that by the second half, it began to feel like a bit of a send-up. Miss Corley has a pleasing voice though, and embraces the role of Hanna with gusto. Her Danilo is baritone William Dazeley, who has sung several roles at the Royal Opera House and has a rich, warm tone to his voice which is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.

By far the most entertaining of the cast, however, are Amy Freston as Valencienne and Allan Clayton as her suitor Camille de Rosillon. Clayton is a recipient of many accolades including the John Christie Award, and it's easy to hear why. His voice is lyrical and lovely, he acts the part very well, and has the kind of face that you believe would easily turn the head of an ambassador's wife. He has great chemistry with Freston, who is amazingly versatile- she sings wonderfully, is genuinely very funny and does some seriously acrobatic dancing. Her jump into the splits during 'The Girls at Maxim's' made my jaw drop!

With a musical score full of mazurkas, waltzes and a bit of Parisian can-can, it is no surprise that choreography becomes the real star of the show. The dancing is energetic and highly entertaining, with echoes of classic Hollywood cinema as well as The Merry Widow's Viennese heritage. You can't fail to enjoy Hanna's Marilyn Monroe-esque routine with her copious suitors, the hilarious light footwork of the male cast members during their septet 'Women! Women! Women!' or the final waltz by Hanna and Danilo, which closes the show under a veil of raining pink glitter. Even the curtain calls are choreographed, with some fabulous high kicks and handstands from the cast and a dance cameo from Wyn Davies, who skipped onto the stage to take his bow. By the time the final curtain falls, there is a real party atmosphere, and with your mood suitably enhanced, you will congratulate yourself on making the wise decision to book your seat!