19 December 2007

The Merry Widow – Budapest Operetta Theatre – 13th December 2007


Act I
In the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris, a great ball is being held in honour of the Grand Duke's birthday. Valencienne, the beautiful wife of Baron Zeta, the elderly ambassador, is flirting with a young French officer, Camille de Rosillon but her husband at the moment has a more serious problem. How can he save his country from impending bankruptcy? Anna Glawari the widow of a Pontevedrian banker, who has left her 50 million (of whatever currency they use in Pontevedria), has just arrived in Paris. If she marries a Frenchman, her millions will be lost to the Fatherland. The ambassador is determined that Anna, the Merry Widow, shall marry a Pontevedrian husband, and has selected the first secretary of the embassy, Count Danilo Danilovitch as the ideal bridegroom. But the ambassador is worried. The handsome Danilo has not yet appeared at the party. Anna Glawari arrives, escorted by a galaxy of hopefuls. The Merry Widow sweeps into the ballroom and, in the waltz that follows, reflects that she might be loved for her millions rather than for herself. The ambassador escorts her to supper, when Danilo, who has been found at Maxim's,
arrives. He hasn't slept for several nights, so he decides to have a rest.Anna appears and wakes the sleeping Danilo. The two meet -- again. Years ago Danilo had wanted to marry Anna, but she was the daughter of a small farmer, and his aristocratic family would not consent; thus Anna married the rich banker, Glawari. She reminds him of their old affair, but Danilo tells her that for all her money he will never propose. When ladies' choice is announced, all the men hope to dance with the widow, but she chooses Danilo.

Act II
The following evening, Anna gives a real Pontevedrian garden party at her house. She sings the famous "Vilia," about an alluring forest sprite. After various complications, including the misappropriation of Valencienne's fan on which Camille has written "I love you," Anna announces her engagement to Camille. Danilo, unable to disguise his grief, storms off to Maxim's, and Anna realizes at last that he still loves her.

Everybody meets at Maxim's, where the grisettes perform their famous can-can. By now, the ambassador, convinced that his wife is having an affair with Camille, decides to divorce her, and in the name of the Fatherland ask for Anna's hand. She tells him that unfortunately, by the will of her late husband, she loses all her money if she remarries. Danilo interrupts her: if she loses everything, he can now propose. And she, triumphant, explains to him that when marries, her money and property becomes the sole property of her husband. The finances of the Fatherland are saved, and Anna and Danilo are finally happy.

Our final theatrical trip of the holiday – and something very informal and relaxed and completely different in tone to the rather starchy formality of the Opera House. Even though the Operetta Theatre is a beautiful and rather grand building inside, there was still an air of happy expectation in the audience for this, the opening night of a new production of The Merry Widow. And what an event it was! There were no pre-opening photographs of the production available, not even in the programme, apart from one rather small and dark picture of what looked rather like a bridge of a ship and which made me feel slightly concerned about what was to come. The Merry Widow is a classic, and a show in which both CBB and I have performed more than once (and in CBB’s case directed as well) so we both, I think, feel slightly proprietorial towards it. I think we were both dreading that it was going to be “messed about with”, having initially assumed it would be a strictly “trad” version. But we needn’t have worried – we were in safer hands than we knew.

Instead of being set firmly in period (roughly 1900), the action was updated slightly to the mid to late 1920s. The “Pontevedrian Embassy” was not, as usual, all pillars and marble, but slightly Art Deco in feel, boxy and mahoganied, with a candlestick telephone and a quite severe staircase leading down from a balcony ringed with high arched windows and potted palms. The kind of embassy Hercule Poirot might conceivably be called to. It was a lovely set, but I think both CBB and I felt a slight prickle of consternation when the curtain rose. But the ensuing performance swept our doubts away (even though it was in Hungarian with German subtitles – more than slightly surreal!). So we couldn’t actually follow the dialogue, which was a pity as this production was a brand new version and it would have been nice to understand what everyone else in the audience was laughing about. And laugh they did – discreetly at first in that kind of “we’re not quite sure whether it’s the done thing to be laughing at The Merry Widow” way, but then more and more openly. There was lots of quite physical clowning and the interpretation of character was excellent, particularly from Baron Zeta (I don’t have the programme to hand so unfortunately can’t refer to the actors by name) and Negus – usually a rather stuffy Embassy factotum but in this case a bowler-hatted, bow-tied, trousers-are-too-short and rather inky clerk. The great “set piece” of Act 1 – the Widow’s entrance – was handled magnificently with at least 20 men in the chorus if not more – a truly enormous amount compared to some productions we’ve been in or seen. The Widow herself was not dressed in her traditional black sparkly hoped ballgown, but in a magnificent black and gold 20’s sheath dress and beaded cap, topped by one of those wonderful opera cloaks with huge fur collars that one sees in the fashion plates by Erte and the like. A long cigarette holder and a Chauffeur holding a tiny pampered pooch completed the impression that this Widow had drawn up outside the Embassy in a loooooooong, elegant motor car glistening with chrome and a real silver hood ornament. When she raised her cigarette holder and every man on stage whipped out a lighter, the image was complete, and any doubts that this was going to be a Widow to treasure were stilled. It helped that the actress had complete self-possession (the kind that serious money brings) and a gorgeous, slightly fruity voice, as well as great comedy timing – unusual in this role.

Only one possible stumbling block remained, and that was the casting of Count Danilo. This is often a problem – he’s got to be suave, sophisticated and urbane, yet slightly shady and even a little rough round the edges – the kind of man that makes women go all gaga, heterosexual men go slightly defensive and gay guys start slobbering. And this is exactly what we got – a superb actor portraying Danilo as an unshaven, rumpled and slightly dangerous “man about town”, with shirt untucked and open to the navel under his smart jacket. He may not have had the greatest voice in the show, but he overcame this with sheer acting ability and style. There was more than a slight hint of the “gypsy boy made good” about him.

It was good to see the rather twee and annoying Camille/Valencienne subplot more sidelined than in the traditional version, with more emphasis paid to the minor characters of the ambassadors St. Brioche and Cascada and their love interests. Cascada in particular was excellent, played with great energy and sexual spirit as a randy Spaniard by a small, dark and extremely athletic actor. There is not an awful lot for the ladies chorus to do in Act 1, but they were beautifully dressed and contained several “proper” dancers among their ranks and who were given exciting and quite challenging choreography.

Act II is usually set at a garden party at the Widow’s mansion, but in this production, the party was taking place on board the Widow’s yacht; the “Hanna Glawari” – obviously a gift from her late husband! It gave a completely different feel to the proceedings – as did the fact that the yacht was crewed by some extremely humpy Matelots!

Any production of Widow stands or falls by the “Vilja” number – and on this occasion, it was a true showstopper. Not only because of the incredibly beautiful, sensitive, virtuoso singing of the Widow but with the vignette that accompanied it. “Vilja” is about a wood nymph of the same name, who seduces a huntsman and then vanishes – and in traditional productions, the number is either sung with no action taking place on stage or by a dancing couple taking the parts of the nymph and the hunter. Here, the Vilja was a trapeze artist and ballet dancer, and cleverly portrayed the girl who was later to become the Widow Glawari, falling in love with the young Danilo. Here the hunter became the hunted, and the depiction of their whirlwind romance followed by the heartbreak of their parting was movingly and hauntingly portrayed. The audience stamped and roared and applauded their approval, and quite rightly so.

The Camille and Valencienne partnership was showed off to good effect later in the act, with the Camille effortlessly reaching his top notes. His slightly pudgy frame, clothed in a tight and shiny suit, did rather make him look like a Vegas nightclub host though, and I thought that Valencienne was portrayed as rather more dippy than usual and therefore did the part no justice. There was, again, some incredibly energetic dancing in this act by all on the stage. All credit to the costume designer for the Widow’s stunning gowns.

Act III, usually set at Maxim’s, was set again on the “Hanna Glawari” – and here again there was a departure from the norm. A new character – not one that appears in the established version. I had been paying attention to the German surtitles and some of the dialogue, and I think that the new character was Hanna’s mother who, it also seemed, had had a romance with Baron Zeta at some time in the past. Could Hanna possibly be their child? We will never know – but it certainly adds a different dimension to the plot! She was a slightly Ethel-Mermanish character – obviously an established favourite at this theatre – and she gave a wonderfully spirited performance, even getting up from her wheelchair and joining in the incredible can-can number, danced not only by Valencienne and the Grisettes, but also by 6 incredibly sexy men in open silk shirts and leather trousers. Something for everyone, one feels! And its not every Hanna Glawari that can do the splits in a tight and sparkly cocktail frock! Brava, madame!

Alas, the show was over all too soon, even though it had been running nearly 3 hours. The cast had to take several curtain calls and they earned every single one of them. This company came to London a year or so ago to perform Countess Maritza and if there is even the slightest chance that they will return to bring The Merry Widow to our shores, I will be the first in line to buy tickets. And I encourage you all to do the same. Truly a Widow to judge all subsequent Widows by.

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