Head to Leeds Grand Theatre for an evening of colourful costumes, catchy music and plenty of laughs.
Welcome to Pontevedro. A cross between Montenegro and the Spanish city of Pontevedra, this fictional state is the setting for Franz Lehár’s iconic operetta, The Merry Widow. Hanna Glawari, the titular widow, has inherited the fortune of Pontevedro’s biggest banker, and the aristocrats are determined to keep it in the country (it’s that or face bankruptcy). But it won’t be that easy…
First performed in 1905, The Merry Widow pokes fun at traditional opera with its ridiculous characters and larger-than-life musical numbers. Last performed by Opera North in 2010, they’re bringing it back to the stage at Leeds Grand Theatre as part of their 40th birthday season, and they’ve brought the original director Giles Havergal along for the ride.
So what can you expect from The Merry Widow? For starters, it’s sung in English, so it’s easy to follow. But just in case it’s your first time at the opera, they’ve kept English subtitles on easy-to-see screens both sides of the stage. If we’re honest, though, you’ll be too captivated by the music, dancing and scenery to read along. Word of warning, the famous Merry Widow Waltz is certain to be stuck in your head for days.
It’s a wonderful looking production. Indeed, the first thing that hits you as the curtain rises is the sheer array of colour on display. We’re thrown into Baron Zeta’s glamorous ball for the birthday of the sovereign, the Grand Duke. The men’s military uniforms gleam with polish, medals shining, while the women’s Parisian dresses shimmer with colour and jewels. Meanwhile, to the side, tastefully nude statues reach upwards, draped in golden fabric to complete the feeling of luxury.
However, like much of the show, the amazing costumes and sets also play into the comedy. The whole party turning to salute the Grand Duke’s painting on the wall has the right edge of bizarre, the grand chandeliers are drawn on rather than real, and the statues wobble awkwardly when moved. For a country that’s pretending they aren’t on the brink of bankruptcy, everything being ‘fake’ is a knowing wink to the audience.
The sarcasm, rivalries and sexual scandal provide a running stream of belly laughs throughout. The action really picks up with the arrival of the opera’s hero, Danilo, rakish moustache in tow. Staggering on stage, still clearly drunk from the night before, we’re treated to a tongue-in-cheek discussion about the nature of failed love, before he discovers that the ball’s special guest, the widow, is the same woman responsible for his heartbreak. Naturally, his attempts to escape are repeatedly foiled, before he gives up and settles down for a nap, much to the audience’s amusement.
From there, the operetta rushes through all the beats you’d expect from a comedy of errors, from romantic misunderstandings to playful competition. A fan bearing the phrase ‘I love you’ is discovered by Baron Zeta, who assumes it belongs to the wife of one of his two ambassadors, not realising it actually belongs to his own wife instead. Meanwhile, both Danilo and the widow take turns antagonising each other, while secretly being madly in love still, but the widow’s fortune stops either admitting it.
There’s no denying that The Merry Widow is riotous fun. What’s more, as an operetta, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, so it’s perfect for anyone that hasn’t been to the opera before. If you’re looking for great music and plenty of laughs, Leeds Grand is the place to be.
The Merry Widow is showing at Leeds Grand Theatre until Friday 12th October 2018. Tickets start from £15.Cover image credit Robert Workman.