All that glitters is gold in Graeme Murphy’s lavish production of The Merry Widow.
The sparkling sequinned dress and shimmering silver ball gown worn by Antoinette Halloran as widow Hanna Glavari reflect the golden millions that can save her country Pontevedro from bankruptcy. Count Danilo Danilovich (Alexander Lewis) loved her when she was a mere farm girl but his uncle forbade him to marry her, so she married a wealthy older man, who conveniently died. Now a diplomat in Paris, Danilo is pressed to marry Hanna, to keep her inherited money in Pontevedro. He swears he won’t, but eventually (of course) does and all ends well. In a romantic subplot, Valencienne decides to stay faithful to her older husband, Baron Mirko Zeta, and her ardent pursuer, Camille de Rosillon, disappears into the darkness.
This was the second of Franz Lehár’s 16 operettas, and its premiere in 1905 led to a 485-performance season. For the Australian Ballet in 1975, Robert Helpmann produced The Merry Widow as a ballet choreographed by Ronald Hynd, which was wildly successful, has been revived several times, and taken into the repertoire of at least half-a-dozen other companies worldwide.
But, as Murphy told me, the original has “plenty of dance” and his choreographic flair makes it integral to his production, as it should be. The big waltz number (surely you know the tune?) is wonderfully colourful, the 12 dancers and most of the women in the cast wearing Jennifer Irwin’s opulent art nouveau costumes; later the melody is the musical key to Danilo and Hanna’s relationship. Act 2 has some lively folk-inspired dances, and Maxim’s nightclub in Act 3 gives scope for a comic dance by waiters and waitresses and a can-can by half-a-dozen grisettes, which goes on a tad long with too much flaunting of red underwear.
Murphy is particularly good with entrances. As Danilo, Lewis staggers drunkenly down from the central door to collapse into a chair, Halloran has three attention-grabbing entrances, and the six women dancers enter discarding their bright-hued shawls as they step down from the upper stage. But the whole movement of this glamorous production is expertly choreographed, actors and dancers always positioned to best advantage, fluently expressive.
Irwin’s costumes are as elegant as they are gorgeous, Michael Scott-Mitchell’s art deco sets are evocatively lit by Damien Cooper and Justin Fleming’s new translation gives full value to both the comedy and the tenderness of the text.
Lewis is an ideal Danilo, handsome, agile, articulate and clear-voiced. The delightful Halloran has plenty of emotional range as Hanna, but thank goodness for the surtitles, as her articulation is rather muddy. John Longmuir and Desiree Frahn give strength and passion to Valencienne and Camille, Andy Turner has a field day as Valencienne’s husband, and Mark Oates brings the house down as a champagne-fuelled Njegus at Maxim’s.
Wyn Davies and the ASO carry the cast on an effervescent wave of the lilting music and the State Opera chorus is well up to its usual best.
The Merry Widow continues at the Festival Theatre until Thursday, December 6