The Merry Widow, Metropolitan Opera, HD live cinema relay, January 17, 2015

The year 1905 saw the first production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, an opera that remains as dramatically shocking now as it did then, and Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow, an operetta that remains one of the very finest ever written.

Chez Maxim, Valencienne centre, all images Metopera/ Ken Howard

Chez Maxim, Valencienne centre, all images Metopera/ Ken Howard

Congratulations to the Met for getting five-time Tony Award Winner Susan Stroman to put on this stunning production with superb set designs by Julian Crouch and glorious costumes by William Ivey Long. Under the baton of Andrew Davis, Lehar’s beautifully original composition, where one thing can suddenly develop into something surprisingly different, was conducted with tremendous verve, and the purely orchestral interludes provided plenty of scope for dancing, choreographed by Ms Stroman herself.

Valencienne and French attaché

Valencienne and the French attaché

Putting it into English was exactly the right thing to do, allowing translator Jeremy Sams (not mentioned in the HD programme notes!) leeway for some fine witticisms. Sams, creator of appealingly modern translations for several classics by the English National Opera, as well as directing his own productions such as last summer’s beautifully atmospheric Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera, provided some excellent moments of humour. When Thomas Allen — a perfect choice for Ambassador Zeta — peeps into the pavilion to see which lady is meeting the French attaché, he can’t see her face. “Where is it?” says Nathan Gunn — a hugely engaging Count Danilow. Not funny on paper perhaps, but hilarious in this production where Ms Stroman has created opportunities for fine comic timing with performers rising brilliantly to the occasion, none more so than Carson Elrod who was a hoot in the buffo role of the Ambassador’s secretary, Njegus.

Danilow, Ambassador, Njegus

Danilow, Ambassador, Njegus

Hanna Glawari and Danilow

The Merry Widow and Danilow

Allen, Gunn and Elrod, along with Alek Shrader as a very convincing and well-voiced French attaché Camille de Rosillon, really carried the show, but we would be nowhere without the ladies: Renée Fleming as the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari, and musical star Kelli O’Hara as Valencienne, the ambassador’s wife, vocally strong, superbly elegant in motion and even dancing with the grisettes at Maxim’s. Ms Fleming, whom I hugely admire in dramatic operatic roles, looked stunning, exuding the glamour and grace that won her a seriously wealthy husband who kicked the bucket during their honeymoon, though this operetta role did not really suit her voice.

What it did suit was the ready wit, comic timing and vocal command of Thomas Allen and Nathan Gunn, who would raise the level of any production. In this one, with its excellent dancers, choreography and seamless transformation from Mme Glawari’s party to Maxim’s, they were peerless examples of early twentieth century diplomatic wit and upper class hedonism. Glorious.

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