Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The Merry Widow

Leon, Stein and Lehar
Opera North
Grand Theatre, Leeds - at The Lowry 15th and 17th November
29 September 2018 to 17 November 2018

Opera North’s production of The Merry Widow, by Léhar, comes to The Lowry on 15th and 17th November – the former the 40th anniversary, to the day, of the company’s inauguration.

It’s a revival of Giles Havergal’s brilliant production of the operetta, first seen eight years ago, and I went to Leeds to see it on the opening night of the new run. As then, it’s a guaranteed good night out.

The story’s perhaps not quite so topical as it was just after the credit crunch – based on the idea that a country could have spent so much bailing out its own bankers that it faces disaster if their money ever goes abroad – but they do say another financial crisis is just around the corner, so maybe history will repeat itself. It obviously does from time to time, if the story of the imaginary grand-dukedom of ‘Pontevedro’ is anything to go by.

The Merry Widow of the title is the young Hannah Glawari, who fell out with her true sweetheart, Danilo, and married money on the rebound. So much of it, in fact, that when her banker husband dies and she inherits, the fatherland is desperate she should find another Pontevedrian to share her loot with. But she’s living it up in Paris, and there is any number of suitors there …

So the whole show is set in Paris, and by amazing chance good old Danilo is there, too, frittering his life away with the good time girls of Maxim’s nightclub. The one thing he’s determined not to do is to marry Hannah just because it’s his patriotic duty.

Of course it all ends happily. But Opera North, this time, are reminding us of the show’s dark side. It was premiered in 1905, in what we now know was the slide into a horrific world war, and spread around the world in the next few years, and, when you listen for them, the lines are full of references to attacks, retreats and battles as if love and war were all the same. And the vainglorious posturing of minor aristocracy and empty elevation of ‘patriotism’ are very obviously part of the scenario.

Hitler, incidentally, loved it. Léhar, not Wagner, was his real favourite composer.

At the same time, Giles Havergal has not forgotten the real message of The Merry Widow, if there is one – that a damaged relationship can be reborn, once both money and patriotism are left out of the equation. Sentimental? Perhaps, but that’s what the story says, and not many popular love stories are about redemption.

The production, with Stuart Hopps’ ingeniously lively but simple choreography, is full of life, movement, colour and humour. It may not have had quite the pizazz on opening night in Leeds that I remember from last time around, but by the time it hits The Lowry no doubt all of that will be back again.

Katie Bird will be singing Hannah – she takes the role after Máire Flavin completes the Leeds run – and Quirijn de Lang is a suave but sympathetic Danilo. Amy Freston – who else? – returns to play the high-kicking, all-dancing, chorus-girl-turned-ambassador’s-wife, Valencienne. And the real chorus girls of Opera North have a high old time as Maxim’s ladies of the night.

Reviewer: Robert Beale