Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
November 29, 2018

Australia has had a long ongoing love affair with Franz Lehar’s popular operetta The Merry Widow initially opening at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1908, a mere three years after its premiere. Over 100,000 people would see the Geelong-born soprano Carrie Moore as the work’s heroine, Hanna Gavari, a Balkan widow who has risen from farmer’s daughter to become a widow worth millions whilst retaining the common touch. Later, fine exponents would ensure the operetta’s enduring popularity with the likes of Gladys Moncrieff, June Bronhill, Dame Joan Sutherland and Marina Prior achieving great success in the role. Many others would be introduced to it via two filmed productions featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Lana Turner opposite the debonair Maurice Chevalier and Fernando Lamas respectively, and these have always played the piece as art nouveau fantasy. However, this new Opera Conference production (first staged by West Australian Opera in July 2017), directed by famed choreographer Graeme Murphy with a new up-to-date translation by Justin Fleming makes for a sparkling production guaranteed to delight both newcomers and opera lovers.

Antoinette Halloran and Alexander Lewis. Photograph © Darren Williams

From the opening bars of the overture, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Wyn Davies bubbles like a newly opened bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Initially it would appear that it is Murphy’s direction, and the sublime art deco sets (designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell) and costumes (designed by Jennifer Irwin) that are the true winners in this delightful production; but this highly polished cast of singers similarly appeal with their clear diction, humour and presence. Antoinette Halloran proves an attractively flirtatious Hanna who has her fellow countrymen and Parisian swells under her spell and the familiar Viljalied doesn’t disappoint, presented with an appropriate sense of nostalgia. Similarly, her troubled love interest Danilo, played by Alexander Lewis, is a confident and well-nuanced layabout, reflecting the often hypocritical views of the time.

Understandably, having such a fine choreographer at the helm shows how important dance is to this work. We have can-cans, tangos and an oh-so familiar, much-loved waltz. Links with the earlier operettas of Offenbach are positively drawn not only in the variety of dances encountered, but in Danilo’s inebriated aria in Act One. Not only has Murphy brought much to bear from his  experience in John Lanchbery’s ballet of this work, but so many of the ensemble sections are brought to life with his imaginative use of movement. The secondary characters are well rounded and impeccably sung with clarity of diction very much to the fore.

Antoinette Halloran and Alexander Lewis. Photograph © Darren Williams

As buoyant and giddy as fine champagne, this Widow is a genuine delight providing humour aplenty and Lehar’s infectious sense of melody explains why Australian audiences have continued their long love affair with this work. This production is a triumph, not least because it is a visual feast thanks to Scott-Mitchell’s highly effective, geometric, Monet-inspired sets and Irwin’s elegant beaded evening attire. However, if I do a have a quibble, and it is a minor one, it lies with the up-to-date colloquialisms in Fleming’s translation. Things which are considered au courant are often the first to date.


The Merry Widow plays in the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until December 6

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine