The week in classical: The Merry Widow; Aldeburgh festival – review

<span>‘A natural stage animal’: Danielle de Niese as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
‘A natural stage animal’: Danielle de Niese as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow.Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

All eyes were on Thomas Allen. Not that there was no other attraction. On the contrary, every inch of the stage in Glyndebourne’s The Merry Widow (1905), magisterially conducted by John Wilson and maximally directed by Cal McCrystal, teemed with visual glory: a sweeping, Hollywood-style staircase down whose banister the inebriated hero, Danilo, could make his entry, sliding from top to bottom and hic-c-ing all the way; a throng of silk bustles and net ruffles in bold stripes or sherbet colours, as gorgeous as any herbaceous border in June; oversize, Dior-style hats worn at a saucy tilt; sexy grisettes with high kicks and black stockings; fit, dandyish men in tight suits, luxuriant moustaches styled à la Marcel Proust.

Why, then, amid all this spectacle, be transfixed by Allen, a septuagenarian with a stage totter, apparently recalcitrant dancing feet and not much to sing? This world-class British baritone, after decades on the opera stages of the world, knows the power of stillness. His comedic restraint – as the smug Baron set on saving his Pontevedrian homeland from bankruptcy – was the steadying force in a big-hearted, hyperactive new staging of Franz Léhar’s operetta which opened at the East Sussex festival last weekend.

The action is rooted firmly in the pre-great war Edwardian period of its composition. Old habits remain sacrosanct, and men hold the keys of power except, it turns out, where money is concerned. Hanna Glawari, the sassy widow of the title (a role that feels tailor-made for the night’s star, the soprano Danielle de Niese), is now an heiress whose fortune could save Pontevedro. Her widow’s weeds are off-the-shoulder and low-cut. She can scarcely wait to end her year of mourning, lift her skirts and dance. A natural stage animal, De Niese is magnetic, witty and brave (she injured her leg at the start of the rehearsal period, but there was no sign). Her voice may have lost some of its gloss but her commitment and musicality win out. The Mexican baritone Germán Olvera as her love interest, Count Danilo, was impressively acrobatic, as well as golden-voiced. Michael McDermott, in a striking house debut, captured the obsessive love of Rosillon for the married Valencienne, sung by the ever-engaging Soraya Mafi. Cameo roles were well taken.

Gary McCann’s designs, with an eye to the belle époque via 1950s cinema, are stupendous (lighting by Ben Cracknell, choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille). Versatile in film, theatre and circus as well as opera, McCrystal, whose Iolanthe was a recent hit at English National Opera, pours his versatility into this staging and no point asking for less. No good gag is not repeated. Bad gags are replayed too. One-liners, funny walks, waggled bottoms, pratfalls, all win chuckles and applause. The actor Tom Edden, in the spoken role of Njegus, embraced excess but carried it off well. The best joke was the simplest: a Ferrero Rocher pyramid being offered, via butler service, at the most inopportune moments of intimate disclosure.

The production benefits from a reworked English translation (by Stephen Plaice and Marcia Bellamy). A new edition of the score (by Lee Reynolds) added transparency to Léhar’s taut rhythms and waltzing melodies. Wilson, who like the composer grew up with brass band music in his bones, brings precision and impeccable pacing to the performance. Those many moments when the orchestra plays snatches of melody over dialogue, hushed, tender, wistful, are some of the most touching. Wilson has drilled the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Glyndebourne chorus, to the highest standards. These musicians, above all, reveal the operetta for what it is: a masterpiece of the early 20th century.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, composer and tenor, life partners, founded the Aldeburgh festival in 1948, wisely choosing early-mid June when the East Anglian landscape is at its best, and possibly – though not last week – its least chilly. This year’s festival, the 75th, is also Roger Wright’s last as chief executive. He has masterminded a decade of change and expansion, both physical, on the revitalised Snape Maltings site, and artistic. This transformation has taken place almost by stealth. He has not lost sight of continuity.

The composer Judith Weir, (b1954), master of the king’s music, is one of the festival’s featured musicians, with 14 works from across her career programmed in various concerts. Having always trod an independent-minded path, she has more than come into her own, and deserves this generous celebration. Her new orchestral piece, Planet, was given its world premiere last Tuesday by the Knussen Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, in a concert that included Mozart’s Symphony No 41 Jupiter K551, and his Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491 (top woodwind playing here).

Founded in memory of the inspirational composer and teacher Oliver Knussen, the KCO consists of Royal Academy of Music students playing alongside professionals.

They gave full, persuasive expression to Weir’s ambitious exploration of our galaxy and planet as seen from a distance in three Nasa photographs. In three parts, the music moves from aerated, misty flurries of woodwind to big, widely spaced static chords, to a final, seething mass of activity. This striking and atmospheric work should enter the chamber orchestra repertoire at once. Wigglesworth, who follows in the Britten tradition of composer-conductor-pianist, was soloist in the concerto, lyrical, fluid, probing the music’s depths and providing his own beguiling cadenza. He also played his own Glasmelodien for solo piano, a short meditation on Mozart’s music for glass harmonica. Past and present met, ghostly, ethereal and wondrous.

The Merry Widow is at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, until 28 July
Aldeburgh festival is at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, until 23 June