Saturday, 12 September 2015

Met Opera - The Merry Widow

For me, The Merry Widow is an operetta anchored in fashion history. The title role was once played by Lily Elsie (not Rachel Weisz) and her costumes were designed by Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon.

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow

This made Lucile a major name in fashion, something which was amplified by the way the general public embraced the infamous 'Merry Widow' hat. This was a hat significantly larger than the head on which it sat and caused some delight to the cartoonists of Punch magazine who got considerable mileage out of lampooning women's fashion.

As a result, when I discovered that this operetta was playing at Luna Palace, I decided I had to check it out. This was the 2015 Met Opera version starring Renee Fleming in the title role.

Lily Elsie, promotion shot.
Originally a German piece, the operetta was translated into English in 1907 for the London run starring Lily Elsie.  A more accurate translation from the German would be 'madcap widow'. The plot centres around Hanna Glawari, a young farm girl who married very well and was widowed on her honeymoon. She is now very desirable as she has come into 20 million francs, identifed as an awful lot of money. However as she was widowed on her honeymoon she wouldn't have been taught everything required to be viewed by society as tasteful and sophisticated.  Instead she would have retained many of her lower class manners. The simple fact alone that she is now exceedingly wealthy would have resulted in society referring to her as eccentric or madcap rather than snubbing her or looking down their nose at her.

As I have only seen The Merry Widow the one time, I cannot compare the casting to anything, superior or inferior. As a result my observations are based upon my reactions to the various reviews I stumbled upon looking for images. The casting of Valencienne and Njegus were delightful. Valencienne carried alot of the play and continued to act her emotional discordance throughout her songs. Danilo, Baron Zeta and Camille were unexceptional.

Of Fleming's casting as Hanna Glawari there were a few points on which I agree with the critics.
Firstly I expected Hanna to be in her 20s, due to the presence of Danilo as a past suitor and that she could allure an older man and then all the young suitors in her widowhood. Too much older and I think she would have settled into farm life and lost the young sweetness that no doubt enticed her husband in the first place.
Secondly, Fleming played Hanna with too much class, sophistication, wistfulness and no eccentricity. As Rupert Christensen says in his review, Hanna's common touch that gives her a subtle allure, and Fleming did not suggest this forcefully enough. She snaps her fan once or twice, but none of her personality exudes anything warranting being called 'eccentric'. Unfortunately this prim and proper portrayal of Hanna means that the switch in the pavilion does not ring true and simply is not believable.

Though it seems the translation of this performance is a recent one, I disagree entirely that the translator did a good job trawling the rhyming dictionary... for his crisp translation. While I have no ear for music and cannot create a song to save my life, I've grown up with enough musicals and opera songs, in addition to having learnt the entire score to Phantom, Les Mis and RHPS among others. So I have heard pieces that work and know when something feels at odds. Of this translation, I'd say it seemed far too laboured at times. The music and singing were operatic and yet the lyrics being sung were at very best those of a musical. I wouldn't go as far as James Jorden does in his review, but I do agree, 'chanteuses' doesn't really rhyme with 'floozies'.

In terms of the costuming, the supporting cast were impeccably dressed. They did not look like bridesmaids at a Downton Abbey-themed wedding, simply because Downton Abbey starts in 1912 and these costumes dated to 1905. In fact it is exceedingly worrying that a reviewer would criticise 1905 costuming in any performance set in 1905. Each costume was beautifully executed in appropriate fabrics and colours and with several I could trace the various elements back to original fashions of the era.

The same cannot be said of Hanna Glawari and Valenciennes' costumes. Though these demonstrated the correct silhouette, they were woefully inaccurate in almost every other sense.

Valencienne and Hannas' second costumes
Valencienne's second dress, a candy pink striped number was cut in a style that was in the shops only in the last year or two, in a colour that wasn't invented until 1937 when it was used labelling a Schiaparelli perfume. Indeed, a search of the Met Museum archives discovered a dress that had to be the inspiration. As the remainder of the cast (Renee included) were dressed in richer tones, the garishness of this made her stand out far too much. To the extent that I wondered whether instead the operetta was more about her than the 'merry widow'.

Hanna's first costume:
This was an appropriate (partially) black number, accessorised in black ; she is the titular 'merry widow'. However given that Hanna is expected to dance and does dance, very poorly might I add, the black is no longer necessary.

This dress was constructed of satin with a tulle/chiffon overlay. There was some black embroidery or lace inserts on the underlay but these were entirely missed. Unfortunately, while the words of the operetta indicated that Hanna was now in possession of 20 million francs, an amount vital to the economy of her native Pontevedro. However in contrast with this excessive wealth, her first appearance on the stage and in Paris is in a dress that looks horrifically cheap compared with those of the ensemble cast who are dressed in brocades and lace.
What the dress was reminiscent of were the two Charles James designs below.


Hanna's second costume (excluding her national dress):
I found this dress to be a delightful design, an opulent rose gold lame number (see in the picture above) with the fabric cut to snake around her hip before falling in a beautiful drop to the floor. Very like the Charles James 1936 dress below. The sleeves/collar combination are also reminiscent of James' 1950 Spiral gown below. In fact the dress seems more similar to this than it does to the fashions of the Belle Èpoque.


Hanna's third costume
This was a cream satin number, in the satin that has come to be associated with teenage ball gowns. As a result it looks even cheaper than the first, something which clashes with the idea that this is her finale, her win, when she gets her man. While the bodice is suitable enough for the promo pictures (particularly when combined with her feather wrap), it is the front of the dress that gets the most coverage and is the most distasteful.

All in all, it was an interesting production, and has made me curious to see it again, to see how many of my criticisms are based in the play operetta itself and how many in the staging of it. 

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