Poised midway between classical operetta and the modern musical, Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow is, according to director Michael McCaffery, one of the few works that "at any given time, someone is performing somewhere". But, though his revival for the Carl Rosa Company is an elegant and charming affair, anyone without prior knowledge of the material would be at a loss to explain its enduring appeal.
Set in the Parisian embassy of the Balkan state of Pontevedro (Montenegro in all but name), Lehar's light opera was considered so controversial when it premiered in Vienna in 1905 that the composer was offered 5,000 crowns to throw it on the fire. Apparently the Montenegrans weren't too thrilled at being depicted as penniless buffoons dependent on a widow's millions for survival, while the book's cynical approach to matrimony ("this marital democracy is founded on hypocrisy") was more akin to Ibsen than Gilbert and Sullivan.
A century on, what then seemed beyond the pale now looks quaint and fusty, and the combined impact of seven film versions and countless stagings have made the once racy plot as daring as an episode of The Archers. What's left, then, is the music - and sadly, that is precisely where McCaffery's production falls down.
As much as we enjoy Lehar's passionate melodies and sensuous waltzes, they're only so much noise without Victor Leon and Leo Stein's words. (As the composer once said: "The music's just the sauce; it's the book that's the lobster.") Having gone to the trouble of hiring Jeremy Sams to pen a jovial new translation, it's therefore all the stranger that the director lets the lyrics be drowned out by an overstocked and overly exuberant orchestra.
Selective miking would solve this problem and allow the audience to fully appreciate Jan Hartley's vivacious heiress Hanna Glawari and Karl Raymond's swaggering turn as her debauched paramour, Danilo.
Perhaps if they emulated the extravagant physicality of Victor Spinetti, hilarious as walrus-whiskered cuckold Baron Zeta, the lack of vocal clarity would not be quite so infuriating. As it is, you spend most of the show wishing you could lip-read.
On the plus side, Hugh Durrant's lavish sets and costumes evoke a wonderful sense of Ruritanian decadence, while a third-act cabaret by some scantily-clad "ladies from Maxim's" is an entertaining digression. Still, as Merry as this Widow is, you leave wondering whether it's time she stopped gallivanting around and went to bed with some cocoa.
- Neil Smith (reviewed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley)