Review: ‘Dazzling, charismatic’ talents in ‘Merry Widow’

“The Merry Widow,” by Franz Lehár, updated libretto by Justin Fleming, directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy, conducted by Vanessa Scammell, for Opera Australia, at Sydney Opera House until February 3, bookings to opera.org.au

Danielle de Niese at the conclusion of ‘Vilja’, photo Jeff Busby

“THE Merry Widow” is, along with Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” one of the two operettas still in operatic repertoire around the world, and in the hands of Graeme Murphy, it now becomes a dance musical.

Although there is much silliness in the plot, it is far less silly than “Fledermaus” and Murphy, aided by his associate artist Janet Vernon knows that, focusing not just on the big dance numbers the operetta provides for, but on the touching love story that lies at its centre.

No doubt that the fictional Balkan nation of Pontevedro is just about as implausible as the ‘Bulgaria’ of The Chocolate Soldier or the ‘Concordia’ of “Romanoff and Juliet,” but the story of Hanna Glavari, the poor girl who married into money and is now a rich widow and her first love, the aristocratic diplomat Danilo Danilovich, offers opportunities to two truly talented musical theatre artists.

The ensemble on the Art Deco set, photo Jeff Busby

Former Melburnian Danielle de Niese (Julie Lea Goodwin replaces her in matinees) and Alexander Lewis perform the two central characters with charm, conviction and pizzazz, transcending everything else on stage with the soaring clarity of their voices, which are peculiarly well-suited to operetta. These are two dazzling, charismatic talents.

In one sense, “The Merry Widow” is one long dance toward the finale, featuring the world’s second most famous waltz, (after the “Blue Danube”) the so-called “Merry Widow Waltz.”

Conductor Vanessa Scammell has a clear understanding of Lehár’s lush romanticism and takes the strings section of the Opera Australia Orchestra to new heights.

Murphy and Vernon match this with a series of show-stopping numbers like the celebrated “Vilja” song of Act II, the pseudo-folkloric Pontevedrian numbers of the same act and the dance of the Parisian ‘grisettes’ in Act III. Performed by a tight team at professional dancers to back up the main characters, these dances display virtuosity of a kind rarely seen in an Opera Australia production.

One of the problems of operetta is how quickly the comedy of yesteryear becomes dated but here Justin Fleming’s arch and sometimes slightly naughty contemporary libretto works well to

Pontevedrian diplomats and Parisians, photo Jeff Busby

recreate the world of Pontevedrian diplomats living in Paris in what Opera Australia director Lyndon Terracini sees as the “Great Gatsby” era. By and large Fleming’s libretto, full of sexual innuendo, captures the sense of people adrift in the amorality of Paris, with lots of fan-fluttering, light skipping around the stage, swift entrances and exits designed to give the impression of a flighty world.

All the principals of Opera Australia rise to the challenge of creating a champagne-like milieu but none more than David Whitney as Baron Mirko Zeta, Stacey Alleaume as his young wife and John Longmuir as Camille, with whom she nearly has an affair. Joined by Benjamin Rasheed as Embassy secretary Njegus, these are beautifully delineated parts played with impeccable comic timing.

This lavish production, complete  with Art Deco settings by Michael Scott Mitchell and sophisticated 1920s costumes by Jennifer Irwin, does great honour to Lehár’s enduring 1905 work.

It plays in the refurbished Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Opera House until early February, in the manner of a musical, not an opera, where the performances were alternate with other operators – a challenging feat for an extraordinarily professional cast.

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