Franz Lehár’s favourite haunt was Vienna’s Café Sperl, and with the famous Theater an der Wien around the corner, Café Sperl became the meeting place for the operetta crowd around the turn of the 20th century. The Theater an der Wien was the site of the world première of Lehár’s tenth stage work, The Merry Widow, which met its enthusiastic public on 30 December 1905. Lehár would later celebrate the piece’s 300th performance at the Café Sperl.

Café Sperl in Vienna
Café Sperl in Vienna

The Royal Festival Hall is a world away from the Café Sperl’s mirrors, lamps, dusty upright pianos and billiard tables, but on this Sunday afternoon I was looking forward to being transported to early 20th-century Vienna with this operetta performance from the Philharmonia.

The scene was set wonderfully by director and baritone Simon Butteriss’ own narrative, which replaced the traditional dialogue. Butteriss took what could have been an outdated story and gave it a modern facelift to include quips about austerity and Greece’s finances. The plot is this: the Grand Duchy of Pontevedro is bankrupt, but the country’s finances could be rescued by a rich Pontevedrian widow called Hanna Glawari if she remarries a Pontevedrian. Baron Zeta has concocted a plan to marry her off to the hedonistic Count Danilo, but has to fight off fortune-hunting Parisians. Things are further complicated because, unknown to Baron Zeta, Hanna and Count Danilo were once lovers but he was forbidden to marry her as she was just a peasant girl. It is obvious that they are still in love but both obstinately refuse to admit it. The operetta follows their romantic adventure with interruptions from Parisians and the extramarital affairs of diplomats’ wives.

The direction of this semi-staged performance was cleverly conceived and enjoyed brilliant acting overall – which, with fantastic costumes, transported us from the Royal Festival Hall to Vienna. Claudia Boyle was entrancing as Hanna and her strong high notes and dramatic voice demonstrated that she was a heroine not to be messed with. Daniel Prohaska was convincing as the arrogant Count Danilo. For me, however, the star of the show was the charming Butteriss whose witty narratives I began to look forward to more than the music.

Unfortunately the singing did not overwhelm and at times was rather weak. The singers, with the exceptions of Boyle and Nicholas Sharratt as the lovelorn Camille, could barely be heard over the orchestra in the first act. This was an English translation but the diction was lost and I found myself relying on the surtitles more than I would have liked. The second and third acts presented the opposite problem, with the singers suddenly amplified, and at times the volume would unexpectedly swell. Perhaps this was due to technical problems, or the lack of enough tech rehearsal time, but it did impair my enjoyment of the performance.

It is fiendishly difficult for orchestras to be able to hear and judge the balance between them and the singers when the singers are performing directly in front of them, but the Philharmonia was not sensitive enough to the singers and overpowered them. This was a shame as they played with gusto. The Philharmonia Voices, on the other hand, were in fine voice and relished their choruses.

The Merry Widow is a delightful work, providing its audience with light, bubbly entertainment. Sunday’s performance unfortunately lacked the vocal finesse to make the performance sparkle and fully transport me to Vienna’s Café Sperl.

**111