The Merry Widow – second ‘opening’ night 2 Jan 2018.
Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is rightly a classic of the musical stage which requires a soprano of the greatest talents in both acting and voice. Gladys Moncrieff, June Bronhill and Joan Sutherland were Australians who mastered the role of Hannah Glawari (called Sonia in some English productions). Danielle de Niese also has what it takes but the microphone, which could have been used as subtle enhancement, was over amplified and unpleasantly unnatural. Ms de Niese dances superbly and is an outstanding personality on stage. Her partner is Alexander Lewis, star of opera and musical and son of popular Australia baritone Michael Lewis and mezzo-soprano Patricia Price. He also sings and acts well as the distant and reticent lover Danilo. Mr John Longmuir has a substantial tenor voice but he is hardly the dashing figure required of Camille de Rosillon. Furthermore, the amplification distorted his extraordinary high range so we will never know what he really sounded like.
Despite handsome sets and costumes, I could not recommend this production. Our national ‘opera’ company has sunk to new depths, pushed along by a drive away from opera in favour of popular musicals for weeks on end. They mix opera singers with stars of musical theatre, a very difficult task considering the different training and talents involved. This immortal operetta, performed by opera singers in a relatively small theatre (1500 seats) with sub-titles, needs no amplification. But it cannot be sung every night without the use of obvious, imperfect and distorting amplification. It is a sad irony that in the first production using the new staging and orchestra pit acoustic improvements we are blasted with loud speakers, upsetting the fine balance needed in an opera theatre. We go to the opera to hear natural voices. The orchestra sounded the same as usual to me but was sometimes overshadowed by the amplified voices. The Viennese tunes seemed unstoppable and Maestro Vanessa Scammell kept a traditional pace.
Some may like the new Australian translation with its updated details, coarse and sexually explicit references. On many occasions I noted corny and awkward turns of phrase which replaced the charming poetry of the traditional old English translations. An exception might be the horsey song from Hanna Glawari’s youth which was certainly an improvement on the ‘original’. Mr Fleming is obviously a gifted poet but it was as if he had done this enormous job in a hurry. I do not know the original German or Hungarian but the spoken dialogue largely came across as unnatural and unfunny. I recall one point at which lovers were supposedly ‘embalmed in sweet perfume’ … were they corpses? Did the company avoid some copyright fees by using a new Australian translation? Or did it cost more?
There were a number of other changes to the work if I’m not mistaken. Lehar’s overture was omitted (it was written after the opening and is often left out). The Grisettes de Paris are normally led by a contralto ‘Madam’ called ZoZo but here the Widow herself danced with the Maxim girls. Was this money saving again? It did seem incongruous.
Having seen ‘Hello Dolly’ recently in New York I know just how split-second timing, a professional Broadway cast, balanced amplification from orchestra, soloists and chorus can yield a tight and satisfying work. I have never seen so many smiling faces as in the intermission in the Shubert Theater at Times Square. I wish I could say the same about the Sydney audience in Lehar’s Merry Widow.
Over many years during January this ‘opera’ company has produced three or four high quality grand operas, indirectly contributing to the Festival of Sydney. This year there will be 30 performances of The Merry Widow, making a mockery of the new-found abilities of the opera hall’s mechanical equipment to rapidly change sets from one opera to another following six months of extensive renovations.
Are there parallels with the current White House? Decades of tradition have been thrown out in favour of an unproven change in direction. The fundamental constitution (Mission Statement) of the organisation has been flouted until moves to change it to allow the ‘opera’ company to perform virtually anything. Pantomimes? Cabarets? High masses? Perhaps someone should write a book about it.
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. https://andrewsopera.blogspot.com.au/
PS – I was bowled over by magnificent performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea at Pinchgut Opera in November – twice the quality at half the price! Nero’s court was replaced by tattooed Brooklyn thugs – ‘Render unto Caesar …’.