BWW Reviews: Houston Ballet's THE MERRY WIDOW is Opulently Romantic
Houston Ballet, The Merry Widow, Franz Lehár, Franz Lehar, John Lanchbery, Alan Abott, Ronald Hynd, Mireille Hassenboehler, Ballet, Houston
Franz Lehár's popular romantic operetta Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), which premiered in 1905. In the process of adapting the score for ballet, John Lanchbery and Alan Abott retained the style of Franz Lehár's orchestrations and included several of the well-known tunes from the operetta. Their score premiered in 1975 when The Australian Ballet, under the Musical Direction of John Lanchbery, produced the World Premiere production with choreography by Ronald Hynd and Scenario and Staging by Sir Robert Helpmann. This grandiose and radiant ballet of THE MERRY WIDOW had its Houston Ballet Premiere on September 17, 1995 in the Brown Theater. The Houston Ballet also performed it in 1999 and 2007. Now, in 2013, the lavish production is serving as Mireille Hassenboehler's gorgeous swan song and letter of admiration to the audiences of the Houston Ballet.
Ronald Hynd's choreography for THE MERRY WIDOW is brilliantly captivating and opulently romantic. Many of the movements and gestures are delivered in the high range, giving the impression of weightless and floating. This is only made more apparent by the innumerable lifts and extensive pointe work present throughout the performance. Similarly, a majority of the movements are fluid and rounded, giving everything soft edges and a vivacity that invokes joyous splendor. He captures the lofty and weightless feeling of love and skillfully evokes these ideas for the audience. When Roland Hynd breaks from these sumptuously passionate and soaring choices, he delivers angular and earthy performances reminiscent of folk dancing. These moments are not entirely free from the lifts and movements in the high range, but for the sequence in the garden of Hanna's villa, a majority of the work cleverly utilizes the middle and lower ranges to differentiate it from the other dances in the piece. In all honesty, the Houston Ballet has spoiled me with programs that feature three or four different ballets across three or four acts and also with spectacular presentations of modern ballet. Needless to say, I was quite surprised at how truly riveted I was by this performance. Ronald Hynd's graceful and alluring choreography paired with the mesmerizing score made this the best long narrative ballet I have ever seen the Houston Ballet perform.
Dancing Hanna, Mireille Hassenboehler couldn't be more spectacular. While I've only had the pleasure of seeing a few of her performances, I count myself lucky to have seen her dance this role in this production of THE MERRY WIDOW. Last night's audience felt the same way, giving her first entrance ardent and thunderous applause. Her entrance in Act III was also greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheers. Throughout the evening, Mireille Hassenboehler danced with impeccable grace, poise, and charm, drawing the audience into her performance and allowing us to get swept away by the lush narrative. Every movement was precise and alive with sentimentality and appropriate emotion. Seemingly spending the evening on pointe or soaring through the air, we couldn't help but float on mirthful clouds of merriment beside her.
Danilo, danced by Linnar Looris, gave this Houston favorite an opportunity to illustrate a range of skills I'm not used to see him perform. In my experiences at the Houston Ballet, Linnar Looris has typically been cast in a character role, often making audiences giggle and laugh with absurd and outlandish actions. He showcases his ability for this aspect of performance during his intoxicated first appearance; however, he shines brightly as the romantic male lead too. He intoxicates the audience with striking fluidity and regal charisma.
Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh masterfully danced the romantic subplot between Valencienne and Camille. Both dancers made their fervent passion for one another palpable and believable. Likewise, they thrilled the audience with smooth and limber movements, stunning lifts, and an ideally picturesque sensuality that simply melted our hearts. This is especially true of their resplendent and breathtaking Pas de Deux towards the end of Act II.
There is not a single dancer on the stage that doesn't do a marvelous job in this production. When the stage is flooded with dancers, the movements become all the more breathtaking and beautiful. Standouts from the large chorus of dancers in this production are Rhodes Elliott's comedic Njegus who discovers the affair between Valencienne and Camille, Christopher Coomer's aging and aching Baron Zeta, Christopher Gray's enthusiastic and energetic turn as the Leading Pontevedrian Dancer, Oliver Halkowich's flamboyant Maitre D', and the hilariously hard to please Countess danced by Silken Kelly.
As is expected, Ermanno Florio deftly conducts the live orchestra, ensuring that the score is absolutely enthralling and engaging. Having played French Horn in Junior High and High School, I must give credit to the absolutely amazing French Horn solos that were played with impressive skill. Kudos to James Wilson, Scott Strong, Sarah Cranston, and Kevin McIntyre, as you deftly played the French Horn parts, making a lovely evening all the more enchanting.