Opera Australia has returned to the stage after almost 10 months in forced hibernation following the COVID lockdown in March 2020, which hit shortly after the opening of Verdi’s Attila.
Recently, OA has begun the year with Puccini’s much-loved La Bohème but Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini decided that the tragic ending made it inappropriate right now and programmed Franz Lehár’s beloved, frothy operetta The Merry Widow instead.
Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow. Photograph © Prudence Upton
The opera will be performed in stagione fashion rather than in repertoire with other operas as usual, to enhance COVID Safe protocols, while the audience are required to wear a mask.
The glamorous production, directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy, was commissioned by the Opera Conference and premiered at West Australian Opera in 2017. It has since been seen around the country with Alexander Lewis as Danilo Danilovich playing opposite various sopranos as Hanna Glavari, among them Taryn Fiebig and Danielle de Niese.
Lewis and Julie Lea Goodwin star here and they are both perfectly cast, and perfectly matched.
The Merry Widow premiered in Vienna in 1905. Set in Paris, the delightful, soufflé-light rom-com begins at the Embassy of the fictional Balkan state of Pontevedro. Hanna Glavari, who married a wealthy Pontevedrian only to find herself widowed five days later, is now super-rich – so rich that were she to marry anyone except a Pontevedrian, the country would be go bankrupt. So when she arrives in Paris, the Ambassador Baron Mirka Zeta (David Whitney) decides that in order to keep the money safe she must marry playboy Danilo Danilovich.
Hanna and Danilo were in love prior to her marriage, but the emotionally wounded Danilo will now have none of it. Instead he buries his disappointment by indulging in women and wine at Maxim’s nightclub. Meanwhile, Baron Mirka’s flirtatious wife Valencienne (Stacey Alleaume) is tempted by the attentions of the lovestruck Camille de Rosillon (Virgilio Marino).
Julie Lea Goodwin with the male chorus in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Murphy’s production, revived here by Shane Placentino, is staged on a striking, opulent Art Deco set by Michael Scott-Mitchell, which moves from the Embassy with its bold black and gold geometric architecture, fronted by a latticework front curtain, to Hanna’s garden with a summer house and an impressionist backdrop of a lake inspired by Monet’s waterlily paintings, and then to Maxim’s stylish nightclub.
The 1920s costumes by Jennifer Irwin are stunning (the red knickers worn by the grisettes, and by Hanna, during the can-can being the only hiccup). Sequinned and beaded gowns with sparkling jewellery and tiaras, lovely drop-waisted floral frocks, and folk costumes are among the many lavish outfits. It’s all beautifully lit by Damien Cooper.
The production features a witty new libretto, translated and adapted by Justin Fleming, which is buoyant, slightly risqué at times – the operetta was daring in its day – and mostly very amusing despite the odd tacky comment (“I’ll get her to sit on him”, for example).
Naturally, Murphy has included plenty of movement, bringing his own take to the waltzes, marches, folk dances and can-can, as well as introducing his own distinctive choreography such as when the male chorus in suits and white gloves accompany Hanna with movement that includes patterned shapes from arms and hands. He also uses a group of dancers who do the can-can and take on various roles.
Stacey Alleaume and Virgilio Marino in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Julie Lea Goodwin is divine as Hanna Glavari. She looks utterly gorgeous – each of her entrances makes for a stunning, glamorous moment. She is also a wonderful actor, creating a believable, rounded character rather than just singing the part. Her soprano is creamy, lush and silky with a dazzling top. Her rendition of the famous aria Vilja is glorious, despite one little wobble as she soared to a high note. She recovered immediately from a tiny blemish that didn’t take away from a wonderful performance.
What did distract during Vilja was the way that Goodwin was carried around on a small platform by three men. It seemed totally unnecessary and had you watching them, hoping they didn’t drop her. Nonetheless, Vilja still worked its magic.
Lewis is an excellent match for Goodwin. He is in strong, firm voice, and is also a fine actor, exuding plenty of charisma. Both he and Goodwin can dance as well. Appearing at first in rakish mode, drunk and dishevelled from a night at Maxim’s, Lewis allows us to glimpse Danilo’s guarded heartache and jealousy, while making it clear that he is a decent, generous man. There is a moment when Danilo and Hanna waltz, then separate, the sadness in each visible as they look back over their shoulder, while Danilo’s pain is touching at the end when he thinks Hanna is to marry Camille de Rosillon.
Stacey Alleaume is an appealing Valencienne, but there is little chemistry between her and Virgilio Marino, who is so stolid and wooden physically that it dampens any sense of dashing romance, though he does have a strong Italianate tenor.
Alexander Lewis, Benjamin Rasheed and David Whitney in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow. Photograph © Prudence Upton
David Whitney deploys his impressive comic chops as the rather foolish but likeable Baron Mirko Zeta, and Benjamin Rasheed is very funny as the efficient Embassy Secretary Njegus who has to pick his words carefully (though drolly) when explaining what is going on to the Baron, and who then gets to break out when he performs a camp take on the song Quite Parisian.
Luke Gabbedy as Viscount Nicolas Cascada and Brad Cooper as Raoul de St. Brioche ham it up in entertaining fashion as two Parisians who are after Hanna – or her money, to be precise.
But at the end of the day it’s the lovely, tuneful score with its sparkling melodies that keeps bringing audiences back to The Merry Widow – irresistible music performed at a lively pace by the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of Brian Castles-Onion.
The Merry Widow runs at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 16 January