Graeme Murphy’s divine production of The Merry Widow finally makes its way to the Sydney Opera House and it’s a cracking way for Opera Australia to kick off 2018. The combination of stunning Art Deco design, a witty new English translation and two extremely charismatic leads make this an extremely accessible introduction to opera for new fans, and an opulent delight for those well-versed in the genre.
First performed in 1905, Franz Lehar’s operetta tells of a wealthy widow, Hanna Glavari, whose re-marriage to a man from her native Pontevedria is necessary to save the country from bankruptcy. Enter her former lover, Danilo Danilovich, who is ordered by Pontevedrian Baron Mirko Zeta to wed Hanna for the good of his Fatherland. Danilo, however, has other plans, declaring himself unwilling to marry a woman with money, despite the fact they both still harbour feelings for one another.
While the Baron desperately tries to reconcile Hanna and Danilo, he fails to see his own wife, Valencienne, is infatuated with Parisian bachelor Camille de Rosillon. Camille declares his love in writing on Valencienne’s fan, only to have the item go missing, prompting a farcical hunt for its owner, led by the foolish Baron himself. Oh! How will it all end?!
For this new production, which premiered in Perth last year, Murphy has transported the tale to the Paris of the late 1920s, when the aristocracy drank champagne and danced the Charleston every night, Art Deco was the height of style and Surrealism took the art world by storm (a nod to which is given in the presentation of the monarch’s portrait in the opening scene). The period suits the work extremely well – political and social manoeuvres were key to the bourgeois playground that was Paris after the first World War, and nationalism was not yet a dirty word.
Set designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell, has taken this brief and delivered a Deco wonderland, replete with glamourous golden geometry, black marble tiles and swoon-worthy peacock motifs. Add a dash of Monet and a towering red velvet staircase and you have a lavish playground for the rich and frivolous that befits an operetta about the pursuit of a woman solely for her money.
Completing the picture is an array of satin and sparkles the likes of which haven’t been seen since Baz Lurhman’s Gatsby. Jennifer Irwin’s costume design is exquisite, and not reserved solely for the leads (although Hanna’s dresses are magnificent). Carefully researched and full of period colour, you can’t help but feel jealous of the women who get to don these art pieces every night.
One of Australia’s premier choreographers, Murphy brings a lyrical style to his direction. The performers cavort across the stage and over furniture with ease, adding to the playful nature of the production. The dance sequences are also spirited and even a little mischievous. Murphy clearly drew on a wide variety of era-appropriate styles when choreographing this show, including Balkan folk dance and French and German cabaret. At times on opening night the dancers did fall out of unison, but for the most part they showcased the cleverly-constructed steps well.
In the titular role, Danielle de Niese is an absolute delight. Her soaring soprano sits easily on the ear, and the quality is maintained even while she performs Murphy’s sophisticated choreography. She delivers the most well-known tune, Vilja, effortlessly and with surprising feeling. Her performance is heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining and shows off her comic sensibilities.
Playing opposite de Niese as Danilo Danilovich, Alexander Lewis is equally charming. His tenor is clear and precise, as are his facial expressions and physicality. He, too, handles the choreography with a deft touch and their partner work (as one would expect from a show made famous by its waltz) is excellent.
The supporting cast is led ably by David Whitney, who gives a wonderfully hammy performance as Baron Mirko Zeta, Stacey Alleaume (his wife, Valencienne) and John Longmuir (as Camille), whose tenor voice is sublime.
Musical highlights include Ladies’ Choice, which triumphantly closes the first act, and the slightly risqué Quite Parisian, performed with glee by Benjamin Rasheed. But probably the best number in the show is Women, performed by Lewis, Whitney, Richard Anderson, Stuart Haycock (who replaced Christopher Hillier in the role of Bogdanovich), Brad Cooper, Luke Gaddeby and Tom Hamilton during the second act. It’s uproariously funny, primarily due to the choreography which is performed with tongue thoroughly in cheek.
As always, the Opera Australia Chorus does a spectacular job, both vocally and in terms of filling the stage with life and energy. The only let down musically was that the orchestra seemed a little soft.
Despite a few tiny flaws, this is a very entertaining production. What makes it a must see, however, is the superb set and costume design. The Merry Widow (and her co-stars) will have you smiling and laughing throughout.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Merry Widow is playing at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, in the Sydney Opera House, until 3rd February 2018. For tickets, go here.
The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 5th January. (Cast changes on the night: Celeste Lazarenko replaced Jane Ede in the role of Sylviane, Stuart Haycock replaced Christopher Hillier in the role of Dominik Bogdanovich)
Photo credit Jeff Busby and Keith Saunders