Opera Australia: The Merry Widow

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Published: 18th November, 2017
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Opera Australia’s current production of The Merry Widow is a delightful confection, full of wonderful music, singing, dancing and unadulterated fantasy. Just as it was originally intended, Franz Lehar’s most enduring composition is back to fill our senses with romance and a touch of the erotic. From the first opening of the curtain, the audience is treated to a vision of Art Deco opulence as the scene opens at a grand ball in Paris. It’s the Embassy of the impoverished Balkan principality of Pontevedro. The country faces bankruptcy, but the Ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta holds out hope that the wealthy young and beautiful widow Hanna Glawari will marry a Pontevedrin man and keep her 20 million francs in the country. He has chosen the handsome Count Danilo to court her, but he and Hanna have a past. When she was just a poor farmer’s daughter in Pontevedro, she and Danilo were in love, but his uncle forbade their marriage because of her low social station. Heartbroken, she marries a wealthy old man who promptly dies and leaves her his millions. Danilo is wary about Hanna’s new wealth and status, but when they meet again, it’s clear that the spark of love still burns.

The role of Hanna is magnificently sung, acted and danced by soprano Danielle de Niese. She is perfect as the self-made woman of style and elegance. Her rich voice is perfect for this role and she sang the part with panache and confidence. Her onstage chemistry with Alexander Lewis (Danilo) was entirely convincing. It was easy to believe that they were attracted to each other, no matter that they stated otherwise. Lewis’s warm tenor voice was a perfect foil for de Niese and their duets were just a delight. The comic role of crusty Baron Mirko Zeta is played to the hilt by evergreen Australian performer David Whitney. His much younger wife Valencienne, splendidly sung by soprano Stacey Alleaume is having an ‘infatuation’ with the dashing Camille de Rosillon played with appropriate flourish by coloratura tenor John Longmuir. Here, the two voices are beautifully matched and it was a great pleasure to hear such truly gifted singers relishing their parts.

There are a number of comic characters in this work. The roles of fatuous diplomats and self important executives and their social climbing, dissatisfied wives. There is a veritable sea of gold braid, gold ropes and epaulets that decorate their magnificent uniforms. The costumes in this production are just brilliant. Literally. Jennifer Irwin has created sumptuous period costumes that delight the eye and transport us to the dream-like world of the European aristocracy before it was obliterated by war. In this incarnation, we see the hedonistic world of Viennese culture before it is consigned to history by World War 2. The sets designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell are just breath-taking and perfectly portray the majesty of the Embassy ballroom, Hanna’s magnificent garden, complete with a wrought iron summer house and a back drop reminiscent of Monet’s “Water Lilies”. The moving staircase and the set for Maxim’s in the final act are real show stoppers. There’s almost sensory overload with so much going on at once.

Director Graeme Murphy has created a showpiece of Olympic proportions. Primarily known as a choreographer, his hand is clearly visible in the constant motion of the performances. He has made sure that the performers occupy the entire stage of the enormous State Theatre with verve and authority. Murphy has also been able to get his stars to really move like young lovers and blend with the onstage dancers to make a cohesive whole. There are traditional Viennese style waltzes of course, as well as some inspired set pieces for the comic male characters and the naughty Grisettes, the dancers at Maxim’s. It really comes together when Hannah joins the Grisettes for a can-can line which angers Danilo and shows Hanna that he still cares.

Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Vanessa Scammel, played the famous romantic score with great precision and feeling. The Opera Australia chorus sang the parts of Pontevedrin entourage and Parisian hangers-on with real enthusiasm.

Special mention should go to the dancers in this production. Although they were given no programme credit, they added so much to this extravaganza and deserve some recognition. For example, the male dancer who drags up to dance the part of the chief Grisette in Act 3 was terrific. He danced provocatively with drunken Njegus, the Baron’s chief spy (cunningly played by Benjamin Rasheed) who, once he finds his glasses, spots the deception, but declares, “I’ll try anything once!” That kept the audience wondering right up to the final curtain.

Originally staged in 1905, “The Widow” has gone on to outlast almost every other operetta from that golden age. A precursor to today’s style of music theatre, this piece has been reworked and re-jigged countless times since then and in more than 25 languages other than the original German. This production is the latest chapter in the eternal renewal of Lehar’s crown jewel. This is a new English translation by Justin Fleming which brings the piece alive to a new generation while retaining the heart of the original for the nostalgic among us. The changes are most noticeable in the act 2 opener and the operetta’s most famous song “Vilja”. Rather than being a “witch of the wood”, she is now a “wood flame divine”. “Girls, Girls, Girls, Girls, Girls” has also changed to something not quite so catchy. The singers also wear microphones, which made the dialogue and smaller moments much easier to follow and I suppose has become necessary if light opera is to keep pace with the expectations of audiences accustomed to other amplified music theatre performances. Also it is difficult for a lighter type of singing as well as speaking, to be heard and understood in a venue the size of the State Theatre. Certainly, with clever sound design by Tony David Cray it doesn’t detract from the performance aesthetic at all. There are surtitles during the songs, for those who need them. It’s the kind of show where you can sit back and enjoy being thoroughly entertained.

This is a most enjoyable production which is sure to delight any audience; from the well-seasoned to the first-timers.

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Editor’s note: My thanks to reviewer Jon Jackson for taking on this review literally with just a few hours’ notice,, and thanks to Opera Australia for making extra tickets available for our reviewers. Having attended the Opening Night, I endorse his judgment of the production, particularly the overwhelming charm of the leading lady, Danielle de Niese. I also appreciate Jon’s final comments on the differences in this production (certainly more modern operetta than traditional opera)  as the point was made to me by more than one person that although this production broke with convention in more ways than just the use of microphones, it did seem to have attracted – and entertained – a new, younger element in the audience … and that, without upsetting the “regulars”.

The Merry Widowplays at the State Theatre of the Victorian Arts Centre until November 25.