Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
April 28, 2018
It’s light, it’s fluffy and it’s fun – a meringue of romance, jealousy and love. But if the story is all a bit silly, it’s still the most lovely night of ballet, in a very traditional but gorgeously done way.
The Merry Widow was created for The Australian Ballet in 1975 by the company’s then Artistic Director Robert Helpmann, who came up with the scenario based on Franz Lehár’s operetta and brought Ronald Hynd in to choreograph it. The company was in a bit of a financial crisis, but the ballet proved to be a huge success when it opened in Melbourne’s Palais Theatre. It has since gone on to enter the repertoire of ballet companies around the world, with Margot Fonteyn playing Hanna in 1976 when TAB took it to the US. This is the first time the ballet has been seen in Australia since 2011.
Opera Australia and West Australian Opera have both recently produced a new version of Lehár’s operetta, directed by Graeme Murphy. The story is the same. Set in Paris in 1905 (the year the operetta premiered), it opens in the Embassy of Pontevedro. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy. Pontevedro’s wealthiest citizen, Hanna Glawari, has been left a huge amount of money by her husband who has just died. If she marries anyone except a Pontevedrian, the money and the country are lost, so the Baron Mirko Zeta decides to see if the dashing Count Danilo Danilowitsch (who is spending far too much time drinking), can woo her hand.
As soon as they meet, they realise Danilo broke Hanna’s heart when she was a peasant girl. Meanwhile, Valencienne, who is married to the older Njegus, is in love with Camille de Rosillon. All kinds of situations will occur, but love with find its way.
Set in the glorious Belle Époque, Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes are lovely to behold. The costumes range from gorgeous black and white frocks for the ladies in the Pontevedrian Embassy, to the stunning red and black outfits for the Pontevedrian folkdance in Hanna’s garden, to the orange can-can frocks in Chez Maxime’s, and the stunning Swan Coat that Hanna wears with a big black bow on the back for the final act. The sets range from the ballroom in the Pontevedrian Embassy to Hanna’s garden with its pavilion, and the final, chic scene in Chez Maxime with its orange walls and decadent chandeliers.
Colin Peasley, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photograph © Daniel Boud
The music, arranged by John Lanchbery, uses Lehár’s music but composes more where necessary. Paul Murphy conducted the Opera Australia Orchestra on opening night, and gave an uplifting performance. Hynd’s choreography ranges from waltzes to can-cans, polkas, folkloric dance and some very emotional, romantic pas de deux.
With Mark Kay and Marilyn Rowe (who was the first to play Hanna in 1975) as guest repetiteurs, The Merry Widow starred Amber Scott as Hanna on opening night. She is utterly glorious. She is tiny, particularly compared to Adam Bull as Danilo, but she is always central on stage with her stunning technique, her lovely extensions and loose back. She appears in her widowed black at the ballroom – though with some gorgeous golden designs on it – and immediately we know she is the central character.
There is a long silence when she and Danilo first meet, and then a quick flashback to when they first met when she was still a peasant. Towards the very end, when she and Danilo finally meet one-on-one, and she knows that he loves her, she looks up at him and it’s an incredibly tender moment as they then waltz into the night. It’s a role she played in 2011, but you feel she is even better now.
Bull first appears as Danilo having drunk far too much, but as the ballet unfolds he moves to a more urbane, dapper fellow. There is still more character for him to find, but he moves with a nice exuberant energy and makes a strong, appealing presence on stage.
Adam Bull and Amber Scott. Photograph © Daniel Boud
Leanne Stojmenov is delicious as Valencienne, coming across as far younger than Hanna; she is impetuous, crazy-in-love and jealous as all get-out when it appears that Camille is going to marry Hanna. She is well-matched by Andrew Killian as Camille who is a lovely partner and finds plenty of character in the role.
Colin Peasley, now 83, plays the Baron Mirko Zeta – a comical character role he first played in the production in 1975 – and does a lovely job, with Franco Leo putting in all the comical twists as Njegus.
The corps has a huge amount to do from the ballroom, to Hannah’s garden where they dance a Middle Eastern folkloric number (perhaps Hungarian), to the can-can at Chez Maxime’s, and do a terrific job. But it’s finally the stunning pas de deux for Hanna and Danilo, and Valencienne and Camille, with their unusual lifts, that are so beautiful and ultimately very moving.
The Merry Widow plays in Sydney until May 19, Canberra Theatre Centre, May 25 – 30, then Melbourne Arts Centre, June 7 – 16