“The Merry Widow” (1905) currently showing at The London Coliseum is utterly delightful. It’s a wonderful show. Funny and amusing, witty and charming and two hours of pure pleasure. Hilariously it combines everything from the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, to Monty Python (The Spam on the food trolley in Act 1) and Stan and Ollie, the classic slapstick ladder routine. It’s a romantic comedy with lovely music, hummable tunes and terrific dancing. As an introduction to opera this is the perfect place to start. If you are in need of some charm, romance, nostalgia and escapism “The Merry Widow” has it all.

The oxymoronic title, “The Merry Widow,” announces the satirical and subversive intent of the writer Franz Lehar (1870-1948). The widow in question Hanna Glawari (Sarah Tynan, superb) is “Merry” because her much older husband has died, after just a week of marriage, leaving her his vast fortune. What should Hanna do with all this money?

The plot of “The Merry Widow” turns on this question. Unsurprisingly she finds herself surrounded by suitors AKA gold diggers. Much comedy is generated from this inversion of the usual wealth and power balance between the genders. Hanna has great fun playing with her suitors. Men, she sings, have only one thing on their minds – money. Hanna is a citizen of Pontevedrin. Like Fredonia in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup(1933) it’s a Ruritainian state on the verge on bankruptcy. Baron Zeta (Andrew Shore) wants Count Danilo (Nathan Gunn) to marry Hanna and so save Pontevedrin from financial collapse.

This production is superb. Ben Stones’ sets are both ingenious and magical. The Pontevedrin national symbol of the Beaver referenced in the giant portrait on the Embassy wall provides the first chain in a series of references to beavers throughout the show. Especially the two mascot beavers. Not surprisingly the beavers are a perfect excuse for double entendre. As when the society ladies worry that if Pontevedrin goes bankrupt they will lose their beavers. Hanna singing from a crescent moon is utterly enchanting.

The Merry Widow by Lehar; English National Opera; London Coliseum; London., UK; 27 February 2019; Hanna Glawari – Sarah Tynan; Conductor – Kristiina Poska; Director – Max Webster; Set designer – Ben Stones; Costume designer – Esther Bialas; Lighting designer – Bruno Poet; Photo: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

The finale at Chez Maxim’s Night Club is wonderfully recreated and the portable urinals for the Urinal number in which men sing whilst peeing works a treat. This number brought the house down on opening night and it is a hoot. Eight men each standing behind his own urinal firing their water pistols at each other.

The direction from Max Webster is assured whilst the conducting of Kristiina Poska is faultless. Lizzi Gee has choreographed the gloriously gritty and gaudy grisettes to perfection. They respond on stage with a kill the DJ moment, as high kicking they sing “why are we doing this dance will someone kill the choreographer.”

What gives this production particular depth and resonance is the genius way that it retains the period costumes (excellently designed by Esther Bialas) but updates the dialogue and lyrics, so that we have our historical cake and eat our contemporary argot. For me this is the perfect show combining humour, satire, comedy and farce with hummable tunes at once whimsical and yet poignant too. Not for nothing was The Merry Widow Samuel Beckett’s favourite operetta.

REVIEW BY JOHN O’BRIEN

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