Of Franz Lehar’s 41 operas and operettas, Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) with a libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein after Henri Meilhac's L'attaché d'ambassade, is undoubtedly the most familiar, if not the most popular operetta ever written. Making her debut at the Theatre an der Wien in 1905, The Merry Widow has achieved staggering success at home and abroad, and she remains a constant visitor to both the best international opera houses and the amateur stage. The Royal Northern College of Music’s new production is a visual treat, and the perfect musical accompaniment to Manchester’s ever increasing festive zeal throughout the Christmas period.

Sarah Foubert (Hanna Glawari) © Victoria Haydn | RNCM
Sarah Foubert (Hanna Glawari)
© Victoria Haydn | RNCM

Sets and costumes by Kate Ford won independent applause before a note was heard, particularly in Act II where her vision for Hannah’s garden was cheered as soon as the curtain rose for its attractively magical atmosphere of snow-covered twinkling trees and extraordinarily beautiful costumes. (I have only ever seen an audience applaud a set design once before; a Swiss production of Ariadne auf Naxos, where the set was a replica of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich.)

Dramatically, musically, and in league with the design team, director Stefan Janski and conductor Wyn Davies have crafted a beautiful production that is wonderfully entertaining. Tonight’s performance, given by the ‘Franz Cast’, would occasionally have benefited from a greater orchestral restraint, allowing singers a better opportunity to be heard without forcing, especially when there is dialogue going on which, when coupled with some ridiculous accents (that I wish would be dropped), sometimes made speech unintelligible – the exception to this is James Fisher’s Kromov, who has a remarkably strong, clear speaking voice. The orchestral, salon music-like, ball music interludes of Act I in particular ought to aid the mood, but not interfere with the action.

Jennifer Parker (Valencienne) and Alexander Grainger (Camille de Rosillon) © Victoria Haydn | RNCM
Jennifer Parker (Valencienne) and Alexander Grainger (Camille de Rosillon)
© Victoria Haydn | RNCM

Vocally, Sarah Froubert (Hanna) stood out as the strongest soloist with a beautiful voice, backed by a good supporting cast and chorus, who it seemed were working overtime to compete with the orchestra. Benjamin Lewis’ (Danilo) lovely baritone complimented Froubert’s Hanna vocally and dramatically. Similarly Jennifer Parker’s Valencienne to Alexander Grainger’s Camille was good, particularly in their comic duet during Act I, though I thought both could reign in the vibrato a little. The remaining cast, of which there are just too many to mention, should be proud of their efforts. Comedy was plentiful in Janski’s wonderful direction, though the omission of Njegus extremely funny aria “Très, très, très Français”, added for the London run of 1907, was a pity, and for the sake of an extra few minutes I am sure would have packed in laughs.

Benjamin Lewis (Count Danilo) © Victoria Haydn | RNCM
Benjamin Lewis (Count Danilo)
© Victoria Haydn | RNCM

What this work is really about though is romance and, though the orchestra was, on the whole, good, the essence of the music escapes them. Many of them (singers too) are perhaps too young to have been in love, but the score is loaded with a raw emotion as potent as anything you’ll find in Puccini, and Lehár’s delicate, sensitive, even dignified approach to real romance – something that the world today in all its hurry seems to have forgotten – is tangible. To take just one moment, The Merry Widow’s great duet “Lippen schweigen” is amongst the most romantic tunes ever written – (certainly on a par with “Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol” from Carl Zeller’s 1881 operetta Der Vogelhändler) – it is a musical representation of that moment when your heart beats only for someone else and the rest of the world dissolves into nothing. So, short of insisting they go out and fall in love immediately, I can’t help but feel that cast and orchestra need to be locked in a large room with the ghost of Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic playing the great tunes of Lehár, Zeller, Kálmán and the Strauss family on repeat, until their hearts beat in waltz time.

All that aside, the production is excellent and, with a warm Glühwein from the Christmas Markets in hand, well worth going to hear.

***11