A small European country on the verge of political catastrophe. Politicians interested more in their own financial and romantic affairs than the business of running the country. English National Opera’s new production of The Merry Widow could not be more timely, and the new English translation by Richard Thomas and April de Angelis does a fine job in updating the text into something contemporary but not cringeworthily teenager-ish. The real novelty, though, of Max Webster’s production lies in completely doing away with the fusty Viennese elegance of the piece – Hanna Glawari, after all, is the ultimate social climber, and Webster’s production neatly highlights the political, class-based and gender-based conflicts in the work. The glitzy Broadway production values, thankfully, do not get in the way of the more intimate moments and the emotional axes of the work were sensitively handled, including a wonderfully understated love duet between Hanna and Danilo in the final act.

<i>The Merry Widow</i> © Clive Barda
The Merry Widow
© Clive Barda

Urinal jokes, sexually transmitted diseases, and twerking beavers – it’s all a bit brazen and youthful, and the tone of the production was nicely matched by conductor Kristiina Poska’s account of the score. The ENO orchestra was on particularly fine form, producing waves of lush sound throughout the evening that only occasionally overwhelmed the singers. Adopting a generally swift tempo, Poska’s conducting was nevertheless sensitive to the ebb and flow of the vocal lines, imperative for a score as snappy as Lehár’s. Poska nicely differentiated the tone of the various national dances, from the rhythmic thrust of the Pontevedrian dances to the lush Viennese romanticism of the waltzes.

<i>The Merry Widow</i> © Clive Barda
The Merry Widow
© Clive Barda

Some awkward amplification apart, the cast deftly handled the singing, spoken, and dancing requirements of the production with aplomb, with particular honours going to Rhian Lois’ spitfire Valencienne. Lois combined impeccable comic timing and diction with a feisty soprano, capped with a ringing high D in the Act 2 finale. She was ably partnered by Robert Murray’s Camille, whose ardent outpourings culminated in some spectacular high notes. As Valencienne’s long-suffering husband, Baron Zeta, Andrew Shore brought years of stage experience and proved a deft hand at the highly physical comedy choreographed into his part. Shore showed a particularly strong rapport with actor Gerard Carey’s Njegus, who executed his somewhat overactive pantomime with aplomb and hilarious comic timing.

Sarah Tynan (Hanna) and Nathan Gunn (Danilo) © Clive Barda
Sarah Tynan (Hanna) and Nathan Gunn (Danilo)
© Clive Barda

But the piece really rises or falls based on its lead couple, and Nathan Gunn and Sarah Tynan both turned in charismatic performances despite both of their voices being slightly too small for the massive Coliseum stage. Gunn’s dashing Danilo benefits from years of experience in the role, and captures the ideal mix of extroversion, humour, and regret – the audience is every bit as frustrated as Hanna over his refusal to admit his feelings, and when he finally relents it’s a satisfying moment for everyone. Gunn is particularly adept at leading an ensemble, most notably the Act 2 septet, here presented as a choreographed urinal situation that had the audience in tears with laughter.

Sarah Tynan (Hanna) © Clive Barda
Sarah Tynan (Hanna)
© Clive Barda

In the title role, Sarah Tynan gives a performance of such charisma and commitment that one nearly forgets that her high coloratura is at least a size too light for the role in a stage of this size. Some of the lower conversational passages in Hanna’s entrance were barely audible, and she didn’t dominate the Act 2 ensembles as she should – it was at times difficult to differentiate her line from Valencienne’s. Tynan’s voice blooms in the upper register, and one sees why she was cast after hearing her float her way through a magical Vilja Lied. It’s also difficult to imagine anyone else throwing themselves into the physicality of this performance with such aplomb, from the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-inspired entrance scene to the high kicks of the grisette scene, here reassigned from Valencienne to Hanna. Tynan’s Hanna also nicely emphasized the gender and class-based conflicts in the work, by turns elegant and deliciously vulgar.

For the first new production of The Merry Widow seen in London in years, ENO has a hit on their hands. With a few more performances, the cast will surely settle into the timing and iron out the few minor kinks. In the meantime, the raucous laughter of the first-night audience was proof enough that this is the most fun one can have in a night out at the opera right now.

****1