The Merry Widow, Holland Park, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

There are many ways of keeping Lehar's widow merry. But you need to respect her, too. This most bountiful of operettas was considered remarkable in its day for breaking with convention and spiking the pink champagne with a twist of social realism. The characters were real and fallible, the tone was a little riskier, the sex a little sexier. The world held its breath when that most nostalgic of all waltzes finally brought Hanna and Danilo to their moment of truth.

And I guess that's where I part company with director Tom Hawkes. Truth plays no part in his camply opportunist staging for Opera Holland Park. I swear I half expected Dolly Levi and not Hanna Glawari to make her well-timed entrance down that staircase. Indeed, once we'd established that Hawkes had chosen the 1920s as his preferred period setting - for no other good reason, it seems to me, than to create an opportunity for glitzy flapper dresses and cut-glass accents - there wasn't too much that wasn't expected. Anyone for tennis? You bet. Bathing beauties? Naturally. Actually, that was the greatest anomaly of all: what does an Esther Williams routine have to do with Hanna's heartfelt reverie for her Eastern European homeland?

But on a balmy evening in Holland Park no one seemed to care. Once Oliver White's lanky eye-rolling Njegus had set the tone and raised the bar several metres above improbable it was open season. There was one genuine laugh-out-loud gag when Hanna - looking fabulous (Peter Rice's frocks were far more beguiling than his set) - duly arrived with her late husband's ashes in tow. But it's unusual for the lady to have the last laugh so early in act one.

Hanna, of course, should be the star of the show and was in Rebecca Caine's glamorous, beautifully sung performance. But Hanna is ultimately only as good as her Danilo. And Philip Salmon was not good. It was hard reconciling his matinee-idol looks to the wooden manner and shallow delivery. Nicholas Ransley had a similar problem with Camille de Rosillon, though his Valencienne, Charlotte Page, added some lustre to some of the headiest music in the score.

At least the conductor, John Owen Edwards, and the City of London Sinfonia clearly knew that this was a far better piece than his production team would have us believe. His widow was merry all right - but she was wistful and nostalgic, too. And, mostly importantly, she commanded respect.

To Saturday (0845 230 9769)

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