13 March 2019, The Tablet

The joy of excess

The joy of excess

The Merry Widow – English National Opera
The Coliseum, London

You can’t fault them for effort. English National Opera’s new production of The Merry Widow (to 13 April) opens with a bang (and a crash) as an army of waiters and maids scurry and collide in an exuberant sequence with more pitfalls and pratfalls than a Feydeau farce. A bewildering array of action, energy and goodwill emanates from a stage liberally scattered with sequins and stardust, and if it’s all a bit giddy, a bit out of focus, it’s still a romp of a show that plays to many of the company’s strengths.

Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta about the fictional Balkan nation of Pontevedro – a country poised on the brink of financial ruin, whose only hope is to keep its fabulously wealthy inhabitant, widow Hanna Glawari, inside its borders by marrying her to a Pontevedrin man – was an unlikely hit. But some of the silkiest melodies in the repertoire and a central pair of lovers whose barbed, charged sparring give Beatrice and Benedick a run for their money have held audiences firmly in their sway for well over a century.

ENO has gone back to the drawing board with its Widow, commissioning a brand new English translation from playwright April De Angelis and Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame). If the result has all the subtlety of a fake-breasted fortune-hunter it seemed to delight an opening night audience who roared at the broad comedy of schoolroom double entendres, Brexit gags, and a rather messy septet set in a urinal.

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