The curtain rises to the awakening of Brünnhilde in Wagner's Siegfried. After "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" Siegfried bails out because of illness, and the première is ruined! The Kungliga Operan is in dire straits financially and the CEO, Benny Zetterberg, is desperate to find an investor to appease an angry board of directors. His wife (who was singing Brünnhilde) is very upset and starts flirting with the biggest potential investor, Leif "Fisken" Hermansson. This very non-traditional opening scene at the first night of The Merry Widow in Stockholm hurled the audience right to the heart of Henrik Dorsin's bold vision of this classic operetta.

Marianne Hellgren Staykov ('Veronica') © Markus Gårder
Marianne Hellgren Staykov ('Veronica')
© Markus Gårder

The idea of "the theatre in the theatre" may not be the most original in the opera world, but in this case, it worked like a charm. The text was completely rewritten by Dorsin himself, in Swedish, to fit the music and to convey his interpretation of the story. The financial crisis is not in the imaginary country of Pontevedro, but in the Royal Swedish Opera itself; and Hanna is not a rich widow whose money can save the country, but a diva whose engagement could save the Royal Opera. Hanna's suitors become the chiefs of the Göteborg and Copenhagen opera houses, trying to lure her to their venues. But the coup de théâtre is the character of Danilo Danilovich, who, in this production, is a famous avant-garde opera director, head of the "Turbulence Theatre" in a suburb of Stockholm. He hangs out at Maxim's pizzeria, where he “mansplains” the world to young, adoring girls working in the theatre. He is called in to direct the show to rescue the opera house; naturally, this show will be none other than The Merry Widow, with Hanna as the protagonist. All this is set out in the first act, together with the romantic intrigue between Hanna and Danilo, which follows closely the one in the original plot.

Elin Rombo (Hanna Glawari) and Joel Annmo © Markus Gårder
Elin Rombo (Hanna Glawari) and Joel Annmo
© Markus Gårder

The second act is a rehearsal of the actual second act of The Merry Widow (the scene in Hanna's garden, where she sings “Vilja”). The author makes ruthless fun of Regietheater: director Danilo sets the scene in a waste landfill, with all the singers, dressed in ridiculous clothes and plastic underwear, rolling in the garbage. During the "rehearsal" he keeps uttering silly clichés like "Feel the pain of the human condition!" Yes, it was cheap humour, but I really enjoyed it.

At the end of Act 2, Zetterberg gets sacked by the board, the investor "Fisken" is brought in, and The Merry Widow is produced in a much more traditional setting, with an eye to ticket sales and profit. Danilo storms out, disgusted.

Elin Rombo (Hanna Glawari) © Markus Gårder
Elin Rombo (Hanna Glawari)
© Markus Gårder

The third act is the premiere of the operetta itself, with can-can dancers, glitter, sequins, feather boas, the works. Flyers by “Fisken & Co" rain down on the audience, advertising Merry Widow merchandise. Danilo and Hanna admit to each other that they are in love, for the traditional happy ending.

Henrik Dorsin is a famous comedian here in Sweden, and his interpretation of the Royal Opera's CEO Benny Zetterberg (who corresponds to Baron Mirko Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador in Paris) was remarkable. His text was truly funny and incredibly witty; it delivered a satire of the profit-oriented cultural world of today, as well as the die-hard "true culture" heroes who are impervious to compromise. The humour was often on the vaudevillian side (a diarrhoea-plagued Siegfried ran around the stage with a roll of toilet paper on various occasions), but overall, it wasn't inappropriate, considering it’s an operetta. Dorsin’s fight with the surtitles machine, which gets offended and starts writing in Korean, made me laugh out loud. Enough joke spoilers, go see it!

Miriam Treichel (Catharina Njegus) and Henrik Dorsin (Benny Zetterberg) © Markus Gårder
Miriam Treichel (Catharina Njegus) and Henrik Dorsin (Benny Zetterberg)
© Markus Gårder

The orchestra, under the baton of Joakim Unander, was enjoyable, albeit lacking a bit of the lightness and fizz that you would expect in Lehár. The singers were amplified. They wore microphones and their voices came out of three big speakers in front of the stage. I understand that this show was not an opera, but the obvious, unashamed amplification of opera singers in an opera house is disappointing and worrying. Due to the amplification, it is impossible to critique the vocal performances of the cast. Nonetheless, the show was extremely enjoyable and a great success.