When Jude Kelly walked out of her job as director of English National Opera's new version of Lehar's The Merry Widow last Christmas, to be followed by her designer and librettist, we all assumed this was just another fine ENO mess. When John Copley was brought in to fill the gap, we thought, yes, a safe pair of hands – his armour-plated Covent Garden Bohème is still in repertory after 34 years – but probably not much more than that.
The fact that this seasoned veteran was as smart and ubiquitous a figure in the Eighties as David McVicar now is seemed to be beside the point: a cutting-edge event was going to be replaced by down-home familiarity.
Meeting up with Copley in the Coliseum's secret wood-panelled suite where George V used to retire for an interval smoke, I quickly realise how wide of the mark that prejudice is. His genial admission that he's a dinosaur, and that he couldn't relate at all to Kelly's Noughties concept – "I don't have an iPod, I didn't know who Amy Winehouse was, and I just don't care what Peter Mandelson did or does" – masks a serious judgement by a master-craftsman.
"The idea was interesting, and the script was funny, but I simply couldn't have made it work with the music. For me, music has an intrinsically visual effect. I've always known what music looks like – and for me The Merry Widow just doesn't look like that."
His version, to a libretto by the urbane Jeremy Sams, will be set in 1905 Paris, "with a lot of frocks, waltzing, and jokes. Just as you'd expect an old dinosaur to do." And with Roy Hudd and Richard Suart in the cast, those jokes are guaranteed.
But this dinosaur has teeth, even if he scrupulously refrains from any criticism of named rival directors. Unnamed, certain of these die horrible deaths under his caustic tongue, as do aspects of the house where he once reigned supreme, and to which, after an absence of decades, he's overjoyed to return.
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