BWW Review: THE MERRY WIDOW at Adelaide Festival Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 29th November 2018.
State Opera of South Australia is ending the year on a light note with an operetta, directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy. The Merry Widow (Die Lustige Witwe) from 1905, composed by the Austro-Hungarian composer, Franz Lehár, and with a libretto by Viktor Léonand and Leo Stein, was based on an earlier play from 1861, The Embassy Attaché (L'attaché d'ambassade), by Henri Meilhac. Written originally in German, this is not the more familiar English interpretation by Jeremy Sams, but a new one by Justin Fleming. As a rough guide, one might think of operetta as somewhere between opera and musical theatre, lighter in both thematic material and musical complexity than opera. With so much choreography, this one leans towards musical theatre.
This work has two main narratives, one concerning Hanna Glawari, the Merry Widow of the title, and the other concerning Valencienne, the wife of the Pontevedrian ambassador to France, Baron Mirko Zeta. She is being pursued by the amorous Camille de Rosillon, the French Attaché, and is sorely tempted.
Hanna was once a Pontevedrian peasant, but she married a rich man who, soon after, died, leaving her a fortune. Count Danilo Danilovich had once loved her, but his father had refused to allow them to marry as she was poor, and now he is a heavy-drinking playboy, a wastrel.
As the work opens, the fictional Balkan principality of Pontevedro (originally based on Montenegro) is holding a ball at its embassy in Paris to celebrate the birthday of their Grand Duke. Pontevedro is in poverty and the officials are worried because Hanna is now being courted by two fortune-seeking Frenchmen, Raoul de St Brioche and Viscount Nicolas Cascada. Baron Zeta attempts to recruit Danilo to become her suitor as, should she marry a foreigner, her money would leave Pontevedro and they would be bankrupt. Now that she is rich, however, he claims that he no longer wants to marry her.
At the same time, Camille takes Valencienne's fan and writes on it, "I love you". The fan then goes astray and she is afraid that it might fall into the hands of her husband. A string of narrow escapes, near misses, and much subterfuge ensue throughout the three acts of the operetta, as she and her friends work hard to save her reputation and marriage. It is an operetta, though, and so, of course, all ends happily after a few contrivances are enacted.
The role of Hanna Glawari is sung by the very popular soprano, Antoinette Halloran, who brings to the character a touch of her wicked sense of humour, seen here in full during the Cabaret Festival in her show, Taking it Up the Octave. Halloran was an excellent choice for the role, and certainly pleased the opening night audience with her tongue in cheek machinations.
Alexander Lewis plays Count Danilo Danilovich, and a fine romantic lead he presents, even though he is an alcoholic womaniser, because Lewis lets us see through that façade as we realise his loss of Hanna affected him badly, and her arrival and availability again in greatly changed circumstances has rekindled his love, although he denies it.
Together, Halloran and Lewis captivate the audience with their singing, which goes without saying, but also with their terpsichorean finesse. They are both also very capable actors. Triple threats have come to opera.
Andrew Turner, always a welcome performer, plays the none-too-bright Baron Mirko Zeta, giving the audience plenty of laughs at the character's naivety, Valencienne is played by Desiree Frahn, a very rapidly rising star, who is an absolute delight as the coquettish and flirtatious young woman, and Camille de Rosillon is sung by John Longmuir in a suitable seductive interpretation of the character.
Today, of course, Camille would be condemned as a sexual predator, and there are a few choice terms for many of the other males in their dealings with the women. How times have changed in the last century or so, even though there is still much to be done.
There are numerous minor roles, all well-performed by State Opera regulars whose contributions to the production are invaluable. To single out any would be unfair, and acknowledging each one would, sadly, take too long to write and for you read. Just go and see for yourself.
There are also a dozen specialist dancers appearing in the big scenes but, in this production, everybody dances, from the principals to the chorus.
Although probably not as challenging as much of their normal repertoire, the members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra treat everything that they play with the same high degree of diligence, and this, under the conductor, Wyn Davies, was no exception. The State Opera Chorus also made the most of every opportunity to remind us of what a wonderful group they are. We are very fortunate in Adelaide.
I believe that it was the ex-critic, now ABC radio presenter, Peter Goers, who once said of a dreadful production that he had left the theatre "whistling the set". Conversely, you will leave the theatre this time singing the praises of Michael Scott-Mitchell's superb highly ornate art deco inspired sets. Jennifer Irwin's costumes are also impressive, with a chic 1930s style about them. Damien Cooper's lighting works to great effect.
There were some drawbacks, with numerous attempts at cheap humour, starting with animation of a painting, which raised little more than a few giggles, and there were occasional intrusions of the modern vernacular, such as "no way", clashing with the era, and why, oh why, were the grisettes 'twerking' in bright red modern panties? The crass elements, unfortunately, both irritated, and detracted from the performance. The use of amplification, surely unnecessary with such strong singers, means that there is no spatial definition, often leaving one scanning the stage in the crowd scenes, trying to locate the singer. Turn it off, and don't do it again.
This jolly romp is filled with memorable music, especially the waltzes and, of course, the most famous song from the operetta, Hanna's big number, Vilja, more fully, There lived a Vilja, a girl of the woods (Es lebt' eine Vilja, ein Waldmägdelein). The music will stay with you.