The champagne never goes flat in this delightful ode to romance and opulence. The Australian Ballet’s opening night of The Merry Widow, conducted by Simon Thew, showered audience members with a feast for the eyes, festive dancing and an unpretentious storyline. The setting is 1905 in Paris and the fictitious country of Pontevedro, not to be confused with the actual city Pontevedra in Spain.
Pontevedrian Ambassadors, Attaches and political figures struggle to keep the country from going bankrupt. A plan is devised to marry a recently wealthy widow, Hannah Glawari, to Count Danilo in hopes of maintaining her money for the country’s finances. This far-fetched idea becomes even more entangled when we learn that the couple were once engaged when Hannah’s net worth was considerably less. To add to the confusion, or whimsy, a forbidden love affair arises between the youthful Valencienne, who is married to a considerably older Baron Zeta, and the debonair Camille de Rosillon. The storyline, with all its switching of partners, may seem like a confusing comedy of errors but it has a delightful way of drinking a glass of champagne and throwing the glass out the window whenever things get too distorted. Pontevedrians seem to have a good life mantra!
Former Australian Ballet Principal Artist Kirsty Martin gives an encore performance in the title role after nearly 7 years of retirement. Her poised and elegant pointe work, which can be impossibly difficult to recover after a prolonged absence, was impeccable. She was particularly strong in her Act 2 Pontevedrian solo, in which she unfalteringly held her en pointe balances. Martin’s interpretation of the role was refined with consistent grace and charm. Her partnering work with Principal Artist Adam Bull, in the role of Count Danilo, achieved effortless musicality and synchronicity. Although all of the Pas de Deux work in the ballet was fluid a particular standout was the Act 2 duet between Valencienne, danced by Principal Artist Leanne Stojmenov, and Camille de Rosillon, danced by Principal Artist Andrew Killian. The coquetish Stojmenov was “the cunning little vixen” in contrast to Martin’s more restrained merry widow. Other dancing highlights include satisfying technical execution by Killian, Brett Simon and Jarryd Madden, bravado extraordinaire by soloist Marcus Morelli in Act 2, and a must-see canon of splits to the floor by the Can-Can dancers in Act 3. In roles usually reserved for females, six limber gentlemen corps dancers showed all the control and flexibility needed to strike a stunning line with the ladies.
Aside from an undeniably fun narrative and a gorgeous score, adapted by John Lanchbery and Alan Abbott from Frank Lehar’s original operetta, see The Merry Widow for the absolute beauty of the set and costumes. Desmond Heeley, for whom this season’s production is dedicated in his memory, originally designed the costumes and set on the Australian Ballet in 1975 for the Melbourne premiere. Along with Ronald Hynd’s choreography and Francis Croese’s lighting, Heeley’s artistry found the perfect home for lavish fashion and opulent scenery. The pieces all complement one another: operatic score, ornate design, whimsical story and intricate choreography covering a broad range of genres from waltz, folk dance, can-can and neoclassical ballet. It is no wonder that the ballet was an acclaimed success around the world, especially after Dame Margot Fonteyn, at the age of 57, danced the lead role as a Guest Artist of the Australian Ballet in the US in 1976. The history of The Merry Widow and its influence on the company is rich and note-worthy. The Merry Widow was Sir Robert Helpmann’s artistic brain-child. A former Principal Artist, Choreographer and Artistic Associate of the company, he acquired the rights to the music and devised the ballet’s scenario and staging. Along with Martin, this season’s production brings back several former company members including Artistic Director David McAllister, and original cast member Colin Peasley as the Baron Mirko Zeta.
The Merry Widow is a genuine gem in the AB’s crown. She is sumptuous, indulgent and a little bit naughty!
Paris Wages reviewed the Australian Ballet production of The Merry Widow on June 7, 2018