IT’s hard to believe that an early reviewer described Franz Lehar’s sparkling operetta The Merry Widow (Die Lustige Witwe) as “distasteful.” To us, it is the epitome of Viennese music – tuneful, timeless, frivolous and the epitome of a careless era before the horrors which would break over Europe in the 20th century.
There is one jarring note for contemporary audiences, after Anna, the “merry widow,” reveals that she will lose her millions when she marries – because the money will go to her husband. It’s a reminder of that time, not so long ago (and still current in many socieities) when women were the property of first their father and then their husband, and only a widow could keep her money and her independence.
But in the vivacious hands of Jessie Stones, we can be pretty certain that although Mme Glavari will become the Countess Danilovitsch she will keep her independent spirit.
You cannot do The Merry Widow without a charismatic central performance, and Jessie Stones, a member of Milborne Port Opera for 29 years, provides just the right balance of fizzing confidence and romantic allure, with a beautiful soprano voice that soars through Lehar’s demanding score.
Her Danilo, Anthony White, another long-standing MPO member, captures the conflicted emotions of Danilo, at ease with the grisettes (as he was with Anna, when she was a poor farmer’s daughter) but awkward around the wealthy women of the Pontevedrian nobility.
The fortune-hunting men who gather round the wealthy widow are all clearly defined, particularly the ambitious St Brioche (Matthew Baker) and Cascada (Ben Grundy). The insanely jealous Kromov (Neil Harrison-Shaw) constantly thinks his elegant wife Olga (Alison Roddy) is being unfaithful (who could blame her?) but sees no contradiction in panting after Anna.
Andrew Armstrong, another MPO veteran, brings his beautiful singing voice and strong stage presence to the role of the Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Zeta, a man who cannot conceive that his wife would be unfaithful.
The Baroness (Rachel Milestone0-McAdorey), who is in fact enamoured of the handsome French Comte de Rosillon (James Craw), shows her spirited side when she joins the acrobatic and enchanting grisettes for their performance at Anna’s Maxims evening in her Paris garden.
Ably directed by Chris Bailward, with musical director Caroline D’Cruz, it’s as frothy as a shaken bottle of Bolly and the perfect return to the stage for MPO, after the enforced absence of Covid lockdowns.
There is excellent playing from the band (special mention to the wonderful percussionist, Sebastian Holmes) and lively and well-characterised performances from the chorus.
The Merry Widow continues at Milborne Port village hall until Saturday, 23rd April – it’s just what we need in these dark times.