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ADULTERY has always been a favourite subject for theatre, never quite so enticingly as in Franz Lehár’s famous 1905 operetta “The Merry Widow”.
With a totally ridiculous story about a rich widow from the fictional Balkan state of Pontevedro and her countrymen’s attempt to keep her money at home by finding her the correct husband, it was bound to catch on in other art forms, and it did.
Sir Robert Helpmann adapted the plot, while John Lanchbery and Alan Abbott revamped the music and composed additional pieces for a three-act ballet. It was, in 1975, the first full-length production directed by Helpmann for the Australian Ballet and is now part of the company’s history.
“The Merry Widow” combined beautiful music and French farce with the manners and elegance of Parisian high society, while the choreography by Ronald Hynd gave the dancers a full measure of waltzes, cancans, polkas and romantic ballet duets.
Later Britain’s Desmond Heeley designed an opulent set and costume designs that gave audiences the glamour of the Belle Époque in silk and velvet gowns detailed with lace, jewels and spangles and the art nouveau ballrooms and salons were filled with chandeliers and grand staircases.
The production didn’t stay put in Australia. With permission from the Lehár estate, “The Merry Widow” was staged by ballet companies around the world after the Australian company toured it to the US in 1976 with Margot Fonteyn as a guest artist playing the role of Hanna Glawari.
Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister is fascinated by the historical resonance of the work, saying: “I remember the first time I danced in ‘The Merry Widow’ in 1985… I was so proud to be involved in a ballet that holds such a special place in the Australian Ballet history.”
The flagship ballet company will be in Canberra this month with a younger generation of dancers, headed up by Canberra-raised principal ballerina, Lana Jones, as Hanna – the Merry Widow herself, as part of a plan to celebrate works created especially for the company.
As a child, Jones trained at the Canberra Youth Ballet School, moving to Melbourne in 1999 to attend the Australian Ballet School, from which she graduated as dux to join the company in 2002.
In 2005 she was promoted to coryphée and, to the immense pride of her Canberra fans, won the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Her dancing has been critically acclaimed as “joyous and effervescent”, and when she danced in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”, it was “supernatural”. Jones was promoted to principal artist in 2010.
The Australian Ballet’s “The Merry Widow”, Canberra Theatre, May 25-30