You’d be forgiven for thinking that opera was just for old people. Walk into any performance, anywhere in the world, and the audience will invariably lean to the older side of ‘young at heart’. There’s something about the form that seems to repel younger viewers, and even the big-name productions don’t get much young blood through the door. But if Opera Australia commits to more productions like The Merry Widow, it could very well spark a demographic shift.
The Merry Widow is a relatively young operetta – it premiered in Vienna in 1905 and is based on Henri Meilhac’s 1861 comedy, L’attaché d’ambassade (The Embassy Attaché), but despite its youth, it’s nonetheless been reworked countless times and translated into more than twenty-five languages other than the original German. Only the score, by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, has remained the same.
The story opens in the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris where the Ambassador baron Mirko Zeta comes up with a plot to save his fictional Balkan nation from financial ruin. He must ensure that the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari (heiress to a sum of 20 million after a mere eight days of marriage) weds a Pontevedrian man rather than one of her Parisian suitors. But Hanna has a history with the man she’s supposed to marry and he, for reasons that only really make sense in the world of opera, has no interest in wedding her.
Hannah is played by Melbourne-born international opera star Danielle de Niese who makes a triumphant return to her hometown for the role. She is truly superb as Hanna, and her luxurious soprano is paired against the clear tenor of Alexander Lewis as Count Danilo Danilovich. The two make for a younger lead pair than usual, but this works in favour of the narrative which, with older actors, feels a little melodramatic. The couple are a delight to watch together – they exude passion for one another and their chemistry never feels forced, even when Danilo’s playboy foppishness reaches its highest notes and the audience is left silently screaming WHAT DO YOU SEE IN HIM!?
Danilo is probably the most annoying character in the operetta, he’s a vain dandy and an incurable and unapologetic ladies man, and his constant appeals to his charitable donations and refusal to marry Hanna simply because she is wealthy make you just want to slap him. And yet Lewis somehow makes all that look rather charming.
The subplot is given life by emerging soprano Stacey Alleaume as Baron Zeta’s wife, Valencienne, and tenor John Longmuir as her bumbling suitor, Camille de Rosillon. There’s not much for the two to do in terms of script, but they manage to keep the subplot feeling relevant, if not especially passionate. Both are exceptional singers, and it’s hard to know exactly why their relationship feels so very platonic.
Another performance very worth mentioning is that of Benjamin Rasheed playing Secretary Njegus. His perfectly-timed word plays and straight face made for hints of comic gold between what were otherwise fairly tired puns.
This time around, The Merry Widow had a 1920s art deco flair, with opulent set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell and gorgeous costumes by Jennifer Iriwn. The period was an excellent temporal choice, allowing for loads of glamour as well as plenty of cheek. Irwin’s costumes were wonderfully rich and textured: fishtail gowns, flapper dresses, cloche hats, impressive officer’s uniforms and breezy peasant dresses. Scott-Mitchell’s sets were beautifully intricate, predominantly black and gold and full of ornate sliding panels and a very impressive bird-cage like summer house.
It’s a frivolous, light-hearted opera and this fact is made clear in a new translation by Justin Fleming. Many of the songs have been refreshed to keep the story clear and while this has come at a slight cost to authenticity (both to the original and to the updated time-period), it’s a smart move in a sector so in need of younger viewers.
There are other contemporary touches – the first ballroom scene includes two women flirting against a wall, a male dancer in drag enchants Secretary Njegus who, upon learning of his partner’s gender remarks ‘I’ll try anything once!’, and Hanna, rather than Valencienne, dresses up as a grisette and leads ‘The Grisette’s Song’. The last is a choice that feels a bit incongruous given Hanna’s character, but it’s a choice that does wonders to modernize the operetta. In previous iterations, Valencienne lead the song, and this made sense as she was morally compromised anyway. Hanna dressing up as a grisett and singing speaks to women’s sexual empowerment and bodily autonomy in a way that Valencienne (unfaithful wife that she is) couldn’t.
Choreography and direction came from Graeme Murphy (former director of Sydney Dance Company), working alongside his longtime collaborator Janet Vernon. The two effortlessly incorporated dance throughout the performance and leant the performance an air of irreverence. Their inventive choreography was danced with great skill by the dancers, though there were moments where the timing slipped and the lack of symmetry between performers became pronounced.
Lehár’s well-known score is brought to life by Orchestra Victoria under the guidance of expert conductor Vanessa Scammell. They do a truly impressive job with the composition, filling the theatre with sparkling, breezy music that seems to effervesce over the audience.
CONDUCTOR: Vanessa Scammell
DIRECTOR & CHOREOGRAPHER: Graeme Murphy
CREATIVE ASSOCIATE: Janet Vernon
SET DESIGNER: Michael Scott-Mitchell
COSTUME DESIGNER: Jennifer Irwin
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Damien Cooper
SOUND DESIGNER: Tony David Cray
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR & CHOREOGRAPHER: Shane Placentino
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Matthew Barclay
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Justin Fleming
HANNA GLAWARI: Danielle de Niese (evenings) / Julie Lea Goodwin(Saturday matinées)
DANILO DANILOWITSCH: Alexander Lewis
BARON MIRKO ZETA: David Whitney
VALENCIENNE: Stacey Alleaume
CAMILLE DE ROSILLON: John Longmuir
NJEGUS: Benjamin Rasheed
ALEXIS KROMOW: Richard Anderson
DOMINIK BOGDANOWITSCH: Christopher Hillier
SYLVIANE: Jane Ede (except 5 Jan) / Celeste Lazarenko (5 Jan)
RAOUL DE ST. BRIOCHE: Brad Cooper
VISCOUNT CASCADA: Luke Gabbedy
OLGA: Agnes Sarkis
KONRAD PRITSCHITSCH: Tom Hamilton
PRASKOWIA: Dominica Matthews
Opera Australia Chorus
The Merry Widow finishes its run at the Arts Centre Melbourne on the 25th November. Tickets and information can be found here.