Cringingly vulgar, brainless and lacking heart: ENO’s Merry Widow reviewed

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

Garrick Ohlsson is one of the finest pianists of his generation. Why, then, was the Wigmore Hall not much more than half full for his recital last week? Brahms.

Ohlsson is at present touring with four programmes, all Brahms’s solo piano music. He treated us mainly to solid chunks, though he ended with the enchanting and almost light-hearted Paganini Variations, fiendish for Ohlsson but enlivening for us. Actually, he played an encore by Chopin, the solitary Op. 45 Prelude, preceding it with a charming lecturette about how Brahmsian, avant la lettre, Chopin could be.

Ohlsson was a student of the great Claudio Arrau, whose attitude to Brahms verged on the frosty. Arrau adored the First Piano Concerto, and there are many recordings of it by him, but it is Brahms at his least typical, especially the huge raging first movement. Arrau simply dismissed the wonderfully intimate late pieces as not very interesting, seemingly playing nothing after Op. 35. Ohlsson clearly has a more ample view, but he plays all Brahms as Arrau did — with the full weight of his body behind each chord, somehow combining fullness of tone with clarity.

The earliest music Ohlsson played was the Op. 21 Variations, which I’d never heard before and don’t want to again. Already Brahms is propelling his music by restless arpeggios and thick offbeat chords to generate a suspicious momentum. The Four Ballades, Op. 10, by contrast, are masterpieces, — even though they were composed earlier — and given the most varied and probing treatment by Ohlsson, as indeed was everything he played. I wish I could sound more enthusiastic, for this was a distinguished recital, but it did verge on being too much of a good thing, making one wonder, from time to time, how good the thing is.

A couple of evenings later ENO unveiled its new production, by Max Webster, of Lehar’s unsinkable (I had thought) The Merry Widow, in a new translation by April De Angelis (of the book) and Richard Thomas (of the lyrics). Getting it off to a bad start was conductor Kristiina Poska who played one of the potpourri overtures, none of which are good, most of which are not by Lehar, all of which tell you that you’re going to have an energetically fun time.

The opening set, by Ben Stone, struck me as promising, seedily lavish, though housing an excessive amount of action, as servants and guests dashed across the set and up and down the indispensable staircase. Some of this opening scene reminded me of Miller’s Mikado, but none of the rest did. It soon became clear that this was going to be a raunchy evening: plenty of doubles entendres, a Brexit joke and far, far too much spoken dialogue — though it had the audience in stitches. It was the dialogue perhaps which undid me: a decent collection of actors, even the usually wonderful Andrew Shore, spoke their lines as no human being has ever spoken. They did this in the dreaded old G&S mode of addressing the audience rather than one another, and all in loud italics.

One doesn’t expect musical comedies to have well-rounded characters, but they needn’t (and recently I thought had stopped to) sound like speak-your-weight machines. Only Nathan Gunn, the experienced Danilo, sometimes sounded natural. Sarah Tynan’s Hanna spoke with a strange accent, which didn’t go well with her appearance or attitudes.

Admittedly The Merry Widow is hard to bring off, harder than its innumerable earworms would lead you to expect. I’d been humming it for two days before I saw it and came back and put on a recording. But to integrate those immortal melodies into the action proves tricky, and I think only Opera North has succeeded for me. If the producer, translator and performers aren’t careful, the characters tend to have split personalities, one of which is scheming and mercenary, the other erotic and enchanting. That is why the secondary love story, between Camille and Valencienne, seems more genuine and sympathetic than the sugar-coated romance of Danilo and Hanna, though it’s the latter pair’s music that won’t leave one alone.

ENO’s programme book has essays stressing that The Merry Widow has a heart, as well as being gay and cynical; any work that wishes to hold the attention of an audience, as this one should, must have a heart — think of the incomparably greater Cosi fan tutte and Die Fledermaus, both of them crueller but more moving than the Widow. This production, too busy and certainly too cringingly vulgar, is part of ENO’s campaign to persuade possible audiences that opera doesn’t require one to think. This one doesn’t require one to feel either.

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