There’s a sense of anticipation as the curtain rises again on this classy looking OA production of Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow in the newly refurbished Joan Sutherland theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Don’t get too excited about the reno as an audience member – its still as tight and awkward an auditorium as it always was – but the orchestra and crew have a better time of it at least.
It’s a popular story, having been translated into 25 languages and a couple of ballets, and it is testament to the engaging music, that it is still doing the rounds over a century after its creation. The plot revolves around the bankrupt state of Pontevedro madly trying to keep the newly wealthy widow and her money in town, by setting her up with a new lover. What could go wrong? Well a lot – particularly since she has previous history with their romantic candidate.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set is a sumptuous filigree of art deco panels, glittering almost as much as Lehár’s popular and bubbly score. And perhaps purists may think its gilding the lily a little, but moving the setting forward into the decadent excess of 1920s Parisian society, gives director Graham Murphy licence to create a lavish spectacle to delight the eye as much as the ear. Having lived the story as a ballet previously, he adds a stylish physical dimension to this lush production, and one that places the hard working dancers at the heart of much of the company numbers. At times there was perhaps a little too much movement – for heaven’s sake if you’re going to import one of the world’s greatest sopranos, let her just sing the ‘hit song’ instead of carrying her around distracting the audience as we wait for them to drop her, meanwhile admiring her stoic balance. Unfair pressure on the audience, the performer and the song. That she still carried it off was a minor miracle.
This production gets better act by act. And that’s lucky because I didn’t enjoy the first one much. It was all trying too hard to be mannered and ‘bubbly’ and only succeeded in being overacted and uncomfortably stagey. Maybe that’s opening night nerves, but some of the minor principles and chorus were quite frankly excruciating to watch, and the set stole the show.
However as the leads start to tell the story in the second act, I became more convinced, and I felt they had ‘hit their stride’ by the third. Finally allowed to drop the requirement to be artificially mannered, the performers were released to deal with what is often a rather moving tale, and turned in some lovely truthful scenes and touching performances.
The widow herself is played engagingly by Danielle de Niese in some quite gorgeous 20’s style gowns by designer Jennifer Irwin. Sculpted into a variety of visually arresting Erté style tableaux throughout the evening, Miss De Niese still managed to navigate the impossible gowns with style and treat us to some exquisite vocals. And she regularly moved me in dialogue scenes as well, particularly as her character gets closer to her goal. This is one of the great voices of our time, and it shines from a performer with lovely heart and luminous presence.
Alexander Lewis plays Danilo – again stronger later in the show, both vocally and performance. He was well suited to the handsome, charming, dancing rake, but was actually more endearing in the moments of substance rather than style. I really enjoyed the strength of his work in the final act.
David Whitney made a meal of Baron Zita, and was quite wonderful. John Longmuir sang beautifully as Camille, and Benjamin Rasheed as Njegus momentarily stole the show in Act 3 along with his exotic athletic grisette!
And the men’s Act 2 song about women was entertaining although breathtakingly sexist. That’s the struggle with these pieces from another time. It was quite fun, but quite offensive – and the tribute to Benny Hill that followed didn’t sit well with me. That was probably my major gripe with the direction and translation – it’s just a bit vulgar at times. There are cleverer ways to get a laugh than with dick jokes, and perhaps a less visually based director might have worked harder to balance the wit of dialogue with the visuals of vaudeville.
Nevertheless this favourite production has been something of a hit for the OA, touring around the country to wide acclaim. And you can see why with its familiar music and jaw dropping design.
Its no Tosca, but this popular operetta is not intended to be – so if you haven’t seen this before it’s a delightful night out under Australia’s most iconic roof. Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne, it gives you a just a moments delicious headiness before trudging out again into the muggy Sydney evening.
Opera Australia presents
The Merry Widow
Director Graham Murphy
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 2 Jan – 3 Feb 2018