Arts Reviews

Opera North: The Merry Widow @ Theatre Royal

As a novice to the Opera, I had a preconceived idea of what the experience would be like and was surprised to arrive and learn that this show was an ‘Operetta’. This is a 19th century term used to describe a light-hearted opera in which not everything is sung. Despite this change in what I had expected, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance and was delighted by the Opera North’s performance of The Merry Widow. Certainly different from a traditional Opera, this style was the perfect mix between theatre and music, brilliant for a newcomer like me.

“The story was an effervescent whirlwind of Parisian Romance in the aristocratic classes”

Separated into three acts, the music was written in 1905 by Frans Lehár and the lyrics were adapted from the French play L’Attaché d’ambassade. The story was an effervescent whirlwind of Parisian Romance in the aristocratic classes, with a comedic take for the modern audience. The performance was sung and spoken in English, co-produced with Opera Australia, with subtitles at the sides of the Royal Box, proving it easier to understand the exact words delivered.

“We were able to fully enjoy the opulent set and divine singing”

The story followed a typical troubled and romantic plot that ensured audience members were not too caught up in trying to decipher a confusing storyline meaning we were able to fully enjoy the opulent set and divine singing. The story follows Hanna Glawari, played by Katie Bird, a beautiful and wealthy widow hailing from the near-bankrupt nation of Pontevedro. Baron Zeta, the Ambassador, must prevent her from marrying a foreigner so that the money stays in their land, thus insists she marries the charming Count Danilo, payed by Quirijn de Lang. Both he and Hanna have a romantic history. Adding to this narrative, we see Zeta’s wife Valencienne, an ex-chorus girl, have a rendezvous affair with Rosillon.

These twists and turns proved for a brilliant operetta that was exemplified through the dazzling songs that were scattered regularly throughout the performance. The mix of theatre, dialogue and opera proved enigmatic since the Director, Giles Havergal, incorporated waltz rhythms, rich melodies, and catchy tunes that made the audience laugh out loud. His stylish production had the wow factor through the period costumes that appeared flamboyant, opulent, and rich. The costumes worn were indication of Parisian Royalty during the 19th century. The main characters only changed twice (three times in the case of Valencienne, played by Amy Freston. This did not really affect the course of the plot since the events of the show happened to take place over the course of an evening anyway.

“The lighting helped compliment the sets tremendously”

The elegant fin-de-siècle set designs, designed by Leslie Travers, captured my attention straight away with the vibrant hues that depicted the dance hall very well. The lighting helped compliment the sets tremendously, especially the statues that held round lights which changed shade depending on the tone of the scene. Maxim’s, a brothel-style nightclub, had a new set that lowered from the ceiling that seemed very art-deco style. This was an aesthetically pleasing change from the more traditional dance hall set. During this scene, the women played harlots, wearing bright pink can-can style skirts and tights. This fitted perfectly for the scene however, the two main female characters worse pink tights throughout the show. Although, their skirts were long, when they danced we could see the pink tights, and this didn’t fit in well. It would have less odd if they worse white tights that matched the outfits.

“It was lovely to see that they had adapted certain tunes to fit today’s audience”

Adding wit to this English version of The Merry Widow modernised the performance for a new audience. The fresh jokes that were included made the old-fashioned ideas of marriage and love more relatable. I particularly enjoyed the reference to the Prince of Wales during a song about infidelity! Other jokes included allusions to a pint down the pub, something I am sure went down a treat with the older audience members. It was lovely to see that they had adapted certain tunes to fit today’s audience. The notable mentions of having a word for sleeping around with different people for women but not the same for men made the feminist me very happy indeed. References to misogyny and sexism prevailed throughout, a great way to show progressions made as well as the work yet to be done.

“I would have liked the microphones to be louder”

Although great, the performance was not perfect in my opinion. One song that the men sang was about not understanding women. Initially, I did not see the witty side as it seemed to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that women are emotional and irrational. However, this is just my interpretation since my friend who came with me enjoyed that song. On occasion, I would have liked the microphones to be louder as I found myself straining to hear a few times. The French lines that were sung were lovely additions to the English and made the Parisian setting more believable. One or two of the extra dancers wobbled so the dancing itself could have been smoother.

Overall, the show had a predictable plot, but this did not detract from the essence of the Opera. It had references to literary texts such as The Tempest and Hamlet which amplified the cultural aspect to the performance. It was a great show musically, conducted by the brilliant Martin André. The Opera North show is perfect for those who are daunted by the idea of the Opera and is a great way to ease yourself into it. The show will surely transport you to another realm and leave you smiling long after the show concludes.

8/10 – definitely worth a watch

Shanai Momi

Featured image courtesy of Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall Official Facebook Page.

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