The Merry WidowSingapore Lyric OperaEsplanade TheatreFriday, Oct 24
Since gender stereotyping has come under intense media scrutiny of late, the Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow over the weekend could not have come at a better time. Staged more as a musical than an opera with spoken dialogue, this well-loved operetta with its tuneful melodies was rife with gender stereotyping, mostly to do with women being enigmatic. It tells of a young, beautiful and stupendously wealthy widow's quest to find a new husband, and her country men's attempts to find her a local suitor for fear of losing her (and her money) to Paris, leaving their homeland of Pontevedro in bankruptcy.
The three-act operetta remained faithful to its quintessential Edwardian form with costumes, a chandelier, and can-can dancing Parisian girls, but was sung and spoken in English rather than the original German. The simple but versatile set design by Aaron Christopher Yap was made highly effective by innovative lighting from designer Adrian Tan, most memorably when the scene depicting a garden party was transformed into a magic forest for the song Vilja in an instant through subtle lighting changes in the backdrop.
Ashley Catling as attaché Camille de Rosilion sounded weaker and a little forced in the first act, but warmed up to deliver a passionate love song Red As The Rose Of May Time in the second act. Tiffany Speight embraced the role of Camille's love interest Valencienne with gusto. She was naturally suave and charming, even managing to stay perfectly in tune and in step while singing and dancing the can-can. Her naive and cuckolded husband, Baron Zeta, was aptly played by the grandfatherly John Bolton Wood.
The jewel of the production was most definitely lyric soprano Kishani Jayasinghe. She outshone the rest of the cast, and not only literally by the amount of bling she wore in the first act, but with her sumptuous vocals as well. As wealthy widow Hanna, she exuded a dazzling Parisian glamour and authority, and enthralled the audience. She showed herself to be a complete master of her voice, with a clear projection, impeccable dynamic control, and a stunning range of colour. She was well-matched with Nicholas Ransley who played her old flame, Count Danilo Danilovich. He had a charming and cultivated air about him, and their duet scenes, whether arguing, dancing or singing, were always a delight to watch.
The constant competition and banter between Cascada and St Brioche kept the production light-hearted. With such a rich tone, one wishes that tenor Melvin Tan had more lines to sing. The non-singing, spoken role of Njegus played by Steven Ang kept the audience amused, and multiple local references such as the Baron's complaints of the Indonesian haze and Njegus' exclamation of "Siao liao ah!" also added to the comic relief.
The ensemble work, especially by the male cast in Women, Women, Women! and by the quintet towards the end was tight and well-balanced. The entire production was supported wonderfully by the orchestra, especially at the Vilja reprise where the silvery line of the solo violin mingled with the mellow tone of the oboe to beautifully evoke the feeling of nostalgia.
Gender-stereotyping does work after all, but probably only when employed in a comical operatic fashion.