A nostalgic journey for rusted-on light opera fans while offering much to attract younger theatre-goers, Opera Queensland’s new production of The Merry Widow is an evening full of charm.
Anna Sweeny’s direction succeeds in commununicating the dazzling world of the late Austro-Hungarian empire, or at least the aristocratic part of it, while emphasising eternal human themes. The various naughty wives and their admirers entertain us with their indiscretions. At the same time, in what is basically a light comedy, there are some genuinely touching moments in the interplay between Antoinette Halloran’s merry widow (die lustige Witwe!) and Jason Barry-Smith’s Count Danilo as they strive to understand each other’s feelings as well as their own.
Antoinette Halloran and Jason Barry-Smith make an ideal pairing as the lovelorn couple, well balanced in their performances overall, and sumptuously attired.
While some performers are fairly wooden in the first act, things liven up considerably as the show warms up. Geoffrey Harris as the baron develops his comedic talents, while Bradley Daley’s confidence as Camille really blossoms. Sarah Crane as Valencienne is quite dazzling throughout.
The operetta features a whole bevy of smaller principal roles, many of them filled with familiar members of the Opera Queensland company. They work well together, especially in their singing, although in the extended passages of dialogue some perform less well as straight actors. However the ensemble singing involving chorus and the large number of principals produces a very robust and well-harmonised sound.
One Opera Queensland singer who is an acting natural is talented tenor Virgilio Marino in the non-singing role of embassy secretary Njegus. He can radiate a wealth of meaning with a single raised eyebrow.
Ballroom and dance routines are carried off well, with the highlight the gentlemen’s can-can. Barry-Smith impresses with his controlled singing after the vigorous carry-on.
Simone Romaniuk’s design is fitting for this production, especially as it is to tour, with uncluttered but visually appealing sets and vibrant costumes, especially the Pontevedrian ethnic attire. Donn Byrnes’ lighting adds to the effect, including minor pyrotechnics at the garden party.
The Queensland Orchestra under Kellie Dickerson produces Lehar’s dreamy melodies as if they’d been doing it all their lives, bringing out many dimensions of the music that can only be appreciated in a live performance. Indeed, for those of a “certain age” it’s great to hear Lehar’s luscious waltz music evoking grand balls in Vienna and Budapest in those last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Much of it was well known to the general public through to the post World War II years (for example, getting a regular airing on Russ Tyson’s mainstream ABC breakfast program), but I fear it has disappeared from the canon of mainstream Australia even “Vilja” and “Chez Maxime”.
The Merry Widow includes a theme of how a cultural group in exile strives to maintain its identity and to protect its future (tilting not so much at Paris as at Vienna). A splendid part of the show is the communal singing of a Slavonic dance song at the ducal birthday knees-up in the lead-up to “Vilja”. Such music was no doubt deep in the soul of Lehar, was born in what is now Slovakia and whose music for this operetta incorporates folk melodies and musical styles from all over eastern regions of Europe.
For some interesting commentary on this point, see Raymond Knapp’s chapter on Viennese opera in his recent book The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity.
The Merry Widow plays at the Conservatorium Theatre, Southbank, until 31st July then tours in Queensland throughout August for a series of one-night shows: Gold Coast (8th August), Toowoomba (10th), Maryborough (12th), Gladstone (14th), Rockhampton (17th), Mackay (19th) and Townsville (21st).