Franz Lehár’s operetta, newly staged at the Coliseum by English National Opera, looks sort of traditionally Edwardian – except for the slinky contemporary ballgown worn by Sarah Tynan in the title role of Hanna Glawari, as up-to-the-minute as the MeToo feminist diversions inserted to please (or not). But there are problems in the staging commissioned by Daniel Kramer, ENO’s artistic director. His chosen director Max Webster seems innocent of how opera tells stories and how song reveals truth about the characters. The book (new spoken dialogue) has been thoroughly updated by a good playwright (April de Angelis), lacing it all as required with racy vulgar jokes (some of which earn guffaws and cracks of laughter), while lyrics have been handed to Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer the Opera fame – with inelegant results such as “When the first rose in springtime explodes into full bloom”… actually roses are complex flowers that fold and unfold their beauty rather slowly.
Webster the director has missed how the real emotional interest of the piece works. Sarah Tynan as the gold-plated widow does not properly engage with the ambiguities in her complicated game with Count Danilo Danilowitsch, First Secretary at the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris where the first act takes place. Tynan (sadly) is just rather vulgar and unsubtle. Yes, the two are obviously destined for each other, as the audience sees the minute they meet. But it needs to be a twisting path, and getting along it must be really interesting. Webster does not build the main characters well: his production is all for show, devoid of real people or feelings. Disappointing.
De Angelis updates the sentiments with heaped spoonfuls of effortful feminism. Nathan Gunn is the right weight of star as Danilo, with a real voice. Tynan sounds quite sweet though rather quiet in her party piece ‘Vilja’. Andrew Shore as Ambassador Baron Zeta does his usual performance, fittingly, and Rhian Lois as his naughty wife Valencienne cuts the right tone. But the rest of the cast lack personality – especially Gerard Carey’s extremely feeble, charmless, pratfalling Njegus.
The most naughtily male ensemble is staged in a pissoir (homage to Calixto Bieito, perhaps) with urine flying around while Zeta, Njegus, Valencienne’s lover Camille, Cascada and St Brioche line up for comfortable release behind their stand-ups-on-wheels to sing ‘Women, women, women, women’ front of stage. No glasshouse, alas, for the lovers’ rendezvous. Instead some improbable sexual heavings below two dining tables pushed together. The music is alertly and idiomatically conducted by Kristiina Poska. But are there really no talented young UK maestros anywhere? Isn’t giving chances to locals the whole point of ENO?
Colin Graham’s much-revived 1980 production boasted the wonderfully memorable Emile Belcourt opposite gorgeous Anne Howells, with Eric Shilling usually the perfect Zeta, Graham Clark as Camille, Della Jones as Valencienne, and John Fryatt fabulously entertaining and unforgettable as Njegus. But in those days English National Opera really existed with a whole ensemble of stars available to draw on. Names like Eilene Hannan and Catherine Wilson as Hanna – and of course it used Edmund Tracey’s in-house dialogue and Christopher Hassall’s lyrics, touched up by John Cox.
ENO has one task – how to return to that level of competence and human personality. Rebuild the ensemble with a rich patron paying for each extra name on the list perhaps. It is the ensembles of performers that maintain the high standards of all those European opera companies.