THE MERRY WIDOW
THE MERRY WIDOW, Opera Australia and the Opera Conference at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 5 January-3 February 2018. Photography by Jeff Busby: above - Alexander Lewis and Danielle de Niese; below - the Can Can; below again - the chaps
Scintillating. Sexy. Saucy. And, for an ultra-lite bit of nonsense such as Franz Lehár’s popular old chestnut – surprisingly sensual and genuinely romantic. This thanks to astute choreography by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon that makes the already electric pairing of Danielle de Niese and Alexander Lewis almost incendiary.
As Hanna Glawari, the young widow of the title, de Niese blows the cobwebs from a role most often associated with ageing sopranos on a twilight career path. Instead, it’s utterly plausible that every man in Paris and her native Pontevedro is after her and not just because she’s inherited 20 million from her recently deceased husband.
The Melbourne-born, Glyndebourne-domiciled de Niese is one of opera’s rising stars with the pipes, looks and charisma of a young Renee Fleming. Although one can’t imagine Renee ever throwing herself into a full-on Can-Can chorus line, or the yee-haw of Pontevedrian folk dance (!!) or even the sublimely erotic waltz that signals the feeling between Hanna and Count Danilo Danilovich.
As Danilo, Alexander Lewis is a young Hugh Grant reincarnated as a smouldering actor-dancer-tenor of heart-fluttering appeal. That Hanna and Danilo have history is quickly clear. That he was unable to pursue her because she was a farm girl is also clear – in the good old 19th century tradition of preserving class and status which saw him take off for Paris and the grisettes of Maxim’s nitery.
The sexual politics of the day (actually 1905 Vienna) also mean that he can be furious that Hanna married the ancient millionaire and thus refuse to have anything more to do with her – now a frightful hussy. Yet he can be employed as a “diplomat” for a couple of hours a day and spend the rest of his time carousing with Lolo, Dodo, Jou-Jou, Clo-Clo, Frou-Frou, Margot and Co, and that’s just peachy. There's also a fair amount of pre-Weinstein-style sexism which is odd and uneasy, but the old codgers on opening night lapped it up. It should be given a good look, however, there's authentic 19th century hoopla and then there's icky and 20th century.
It all changes, however, when the 20 mill comes into play with the poobahs of near-bankrupt Pontevedro frantic to keep it in the country. This is tricky as numerous Parisian suitors including Raoul de St Brioche (Brad Cooper) and Vicomte Cascada (Luke Gabbedy) are rudely keen to get their pattes collantes on the loot. Did I mention The Merry Widow is a confection of nonsense, jokes and lovely music?
The jokes of this show’s libretto are the work of Justin Fleming. He has a rare gift for making the very most of foreign flummery, as well as adding sharp witticisms, wicked rhymes and smut to turn what could be lumpen tosh into shrewdly sophisticated hilarity.
The overall casting of the show adds considerably to the class of the whole. Vital to the success of The Merry Widow is the ability to rapidly spit out tongue-twisting dialogue and lyrics – a la Gilbert & Sullivan – with aplomb and ease. As Baron Mirko Zeta, chief Pontevedrian and blundering architect of the scheme to persuade Danilo to get off his moral high horse and marry Hanna, David Whitney is a delight. Better known as a fine actor and master of difficult texts, he was most recently seen on the OA stage as another dodgy mittel European – Zoltan Karpathy – in Dame Julie’s My Fair Lady. In this instance Baron Mirko adds malaprops to his verbal infelicities – thinking himself about to be a cuckoo rather than a cuckold for instance – and is a goof and a boob by turns.
Small wonder that there’s a (relatively) substantial sub-plot concerning Baroness Zirka aka Valencienne (Stacey Alleaume) and a would-be paramour Camille de Rosillon (John Longmuir). The thing is, doing macrame would be more exciting than being married to Baron Zeta and it’s to Valencienne’s credit, and the plot structure, that she manages to resist for as long as she does.
The by-play with a moonlit pergola, the putative lovers, a helpful Hanna and the Baron’s even more helpful and long-suffering major domo Njegus (Benjamin Rasheed) is excellent and Njegus gets more mileage out of “With all due respect” than a cartful of dissing politicians. Finally when Hanna explains to the Baron – of Valencienne – that, “She’s not unfaithful, she’s just young,” it all makes perfect sense, in this context.
Because the production has been created by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon it looks spectacular with tongue-in-cheek set pieces, first rate dance and a chorus that actually moves and acts appropriately and with verve. The highlight has to be the illustration, not only in music and words, but in movement of the passion between Hanna and Danilo, while the Parisian parties and nitery have real panache and style.
The Deco-style settings (Michael Scott Mitchell) and wittily varied costumes (Jennifer Irwin) add to the visual feast, while the production is aided by Damien Cooper’s lighting in a very theatrical fashion. The orchestra and chorus are as usual on top form and who knows whether the musicians are enjoying their new pit: they sound as fine as ever under the baton of musical theatre maestro Vanessa Scammell. At the same time, the musical preparation, by John Haddock and Stephen Walter, means the supporting singers and all principals are all at the top of their form and outstanding.
My only question would be why Hanna had to be carted about briefly on a sort of metal dustbin lid thing by some beefy chorus chaps while she looked confident and sang like an angel. They set her down centre-stage, she sang some more, then they picked her up and carried her back from whence she came. Que?
Bin lid aside, this version of The Merry Widow deserves success – they’re doing 6-8 shows a week and are expertly mic-ed by ace sound designer Tony David Cray – and to stay in the repertoire for years. It’s the show OA needs for the long summer run and it’s – glory be – home-grown, albeit Ms Dany is now international and about to be a superstar. Take the (older) kids and take your sense of the ridiculous, but also take your ears and eyes: it’s a sumptuous treat.