Review: The Merry Widow was an animated show, sprinkled with joy and optimism

Streetwise Opera performer Anita Ferguson writes about her experience watching Opera North's recent production of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, along other performers from the Streetwise Opera group in Manchester: 

Opera North is celebrating its 40th Birthday in great style, with Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow at The Lowry, Salford. It premiered in 1905, in the "silver age" of Viennese operettas. I've come along with fellow participants from Streetwise Opera and our workshop leader David Owen Lewis, who is looking forward to seeing some old friends in the company. We have been working on this operetta all term and for me it will be hard not to join in with the chorus!

Countess Hanna Glawari arrives in Paris . Her very wealthy husband died after seven days of wedlock, leaving her extremely wealthy and very popular with every socialite and fortune-seeker in town. At the embassy of her home country of Pontevedro, ambassador Baron Zeta and his friends are worried that she'll marry a foreigner, take her funds away and leave their country bankrupt. He's hoping for his nephew Danilo as a likely fiancé, not knowing that he and Hanna have had a previous unhappy entanglement. Since then Danilo has  sought refuge in drink and the delights of the girls at Maxim's. Hanna seeks a man who will love her more than her money and for now is biding her time.  At that time, to be single was an embarrassment, a divorcee scandalous. But a widow was a much better bet. I came across a programme not, quoting a woman who said of a husband: "I should like to see him struck by lightning as we come out of the church. It is so nice to be a young widow." I feel sure that Hanna will make the most of her new state. Zeta's young wife, Valencia, is mid-flirtation with Camille, the Count de Rosillon.

We are a little frustrated as we can't hear them during Act One, and I can tell that their singing is beautiful; Nicholas Watts as Camille has a very pleasing tone.  The Lowry's Lyric Theatre is so much bigger than their home at The Grand, and I'm sure it must be difficult to adjust the dynamics. We have subtitles and for now they will suffice. Also, some of us feel that the tempo seems a little slow and heavy.  

And so we all go to the ball.The costumes are exquisite and we're all happy to get some sparkle into our Autumnal lives. My friend Phil is unable to see because of losing his specs. All he can see are pastel-coloured blobs with glitter dancing around the stage. But he can hear the singing! Katie Bird effervesces as Hanna. Her voice is rich and powerful, particularly in the high register. She is vibrant and charismatic and seems amused by the fawning socialites.

They recreate Maxim's in the embassy, with Valencienne dancing with Les Grisettes. The society ladies are full of scorn for the lovely lady who was once a dancer. It seems hypocritical of them to look down on the dancers and their profession; they would happily buy a husband for their daughters, if it means getting a title. The tempo has picked up now after a somewhat sluggish start from the orchestra. Nostalgia! They dance to the 'Merry Widow Waltz' and I can picture my Mam, dancing with the very small grandchildren, to her favourite music and I smile.

I didn't realise that I would laugh so much! Some of the dialogue has been updated, which works: "You despicable man; I do what I can!"; "Barrel loads of cash." I love the dancing. The Grisettes are jubilant, gaily-costumed coquettes; "If you like like, we can can!" The men join arms for Cherchez la Femme.  They are hilarious physical comics and make an exuberant chorus line. They refer to falling under a tram; a nice local touch. The Opera North Chorus are called on to do a lot of acting and dancing and are impressive in both. Their singing, obviously, is wonderful; exactly as I've come to expect of them!

Gillian Butterfield's Valencienne sings a very beautiful, dulcet 'Vilja Song'. She is actually a stand-in. It's amazing how they have someone who is such a talented singer, who can also do cartwheels and the splits when required; wonderful! Hanna and Danilo, who have literally been dancing around each other, are together at last. I love a happy ending!

We all enjoyed the show immensely. We all loved having our own cordoned off area at the interval; it certainly lent a sense of occasion. It is good to feel special sometimes. We all especially loved the dancing. It was wonderful for us to hear just how many songs we'd worked on in our workshops. I saw a lot of feet tapping. For many in the group, Vilja was the favourite. For me this was an animated show, sprinkled with joy and optimism throughout and full of talented performances. I'd like to thank Streetwise Opera and Opera North for giving us the chance to see The Merry Widow. It is sometimes said that this kind of operetta is dated. But we left the theatre with faces lit with smiles, so all I can say is Happy Birthday, Opera North!