It is a challenge to present a modern public with something of a soap-operetta like The Merry Widow. This light work profiles gender, marriage and loyalty to a small state very specifically and in a contrasting way to our contemporary approach.
However, the cast and creatives at Opera Australia, and Lehár’s direct and beautiful score as interpreted with infectious lilt by Vanessa Scammell save the day in this regard. The attractive, engaging production spills over us with sumptuous momentum, visual delights and a dazzling, physicality to the storytelling.
‘The Merry Widow’s’ first Australian production played one hundred and ten years ago. Sung in English, it borrowed a British version from 1907 to tell the tale of a crisis for the make-believe Pontevedrian state. (relating to real-life Montenegro). A national must marry the widow Hanna Glaveri to bring her fortune to Pontevedro.
In this latest English language version all the humour, farce, nationalistic pride as well as folk song and dance are well preserved. Design work referencing Art Deco and fashion around the glittering 1920’s by designers Michael Scott Mitchell (set design) and Jennifer Irwin (costume design) makes for a captivating Pontevedrian Embassy, the outdoor of Hanna’s house and Maxim’s niteclub
Thanks to a slick, clear and updated English translation by Justin Fleming, original commentary on gender and possibly outdated relationship structures is joyously turned on its head. The swift delivery style focusses on the hectic, almost farcical dilemma at the embassy and some telling revelations on the timeless challenges of love.
Around the detailed stage sets and structures various, direction and choreography from the formidable team of Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon ensure ensembles of any size plus a troupe of male and female dancers always share the stage with fluid ease.
The busy but beautiful outdoor party scene at which we hear the traditional Vilja sung by Hanna comes complete with an imposing ornate romantic rendez-vous summer house. This is later used by the straying Pontevedrian Baroness Valencienne, played with perfect comic timing by Stacey Alleaume and her well matched partner in crime Rossignon (an equally expressive and effervescent John Longmuir)
In front of this summer house Hanna’s party in honour of the prince features the impressive dance troupe in folk dance formation complete with fine lift work. They later wow us as waiters and grisettes in the Act Three Maxim’s scene.
Danielle de Niese’s Hanna departs in this scene from her opening bold entry as an atypical femme dealing with desperate suitors. We witness a delicate softening as she delivers Vilja with a smooth but penetrating vocal presence. This is also a seamlessly sensuous physical moment in combination with some of the talented male dancers.The poise and communication resulting from all layers of this magical direction succeeding at once make it a special and exquisite amendment to the work’s familiar highlight.
The most precarious of all the love geometry in this operetta is that of former lovers Hanna and Danilo as the suitors build and they stumble over their pride and memories of past love.Alexander Lewis graces the 2018 crowd with a chameleon-like portrayal of a confused lover scared of revisiting feelings once left behind. His flexible voice and depiction of pride, hurt, desire and vulnerability are accessible to the modern listeners, who follow his familiar human struggle.
Lewis’ defiant You Will Find Me At Maxim’s is pure entertainment and a relevant commitment-phobic statement for our times in this entertainer’s hands. Subsequent moments of reprise work brilliantly on a dramatic and musical level following solid treatment of the initial musical number.
As the tangled web of possible outcomes are narrowed down to Hanna and Danilo’s love resurfacing, so too emerges a sparkling, deep and very believable on-stage chemistry between these principals to match the glistening attraction of the stage design and activity. Danielle de Niese daringly works the floor at Maxim’s in Act Three’s exuberant displays with the grisettes to tease Danilo’s troubled infatuation and memory.
This is yet another well-perfected dimension to the character of Hanna. It is balanced by sobering concluding moments in the dialogue as she summarises for us in 2018 any human’s reaction when love takes hold, and the challenges we face as love brings our defences down.
This moment of libretto is gold for a modern summer crowd who are never too advanced or evolved to be immune to love’s dangers. De Niese’s delivery presents yet another level of successful communication for her character on the modern stage.
Special mention must be made of the narrative and scene-linking excellence of embassy official Njegus as played in commendable ensemble scenes by Benjamin Rasheed. There is cleverly paced comic subtlety here and thought-provoking judgements as he hurries characters through the Parisian diplomatic mess. And to complete a quality performance, his final-act song ‘Très Parisien’ speaks with fine tone and further comic success.
This new production brought to Opera Australia’s Sydney Summer Season stage satisfies a modern audience. We are now conditioned in a multimedia Maxim’s of sorts to react to sight, sound and sentiment whenever left to our own devices. Here the social media format of operetta, especially as crafted in this updated classic, dazzles with analogue accuracy.
The Merry Widow plays at The Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until Feb 3 2018. For more information visit: