A clever production of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow has been making its way around the major Australian opera companies, and finally, with some extra tweaks, has arrived onto the Adelaide Festival Theatre's stage for a joyous end-of-year spectacular. 

Antoinette Halloran (Hanna Glawari) © Darren Williams
Antoinette Halloran (Hanna Glawari)
© Darren Williams

Director Graeme Murphy choreographed the performance seamlessly: it started slowly, gaining momentum and sparkle as the second and third acts evolved. Jennifer Irwin’s costume designs were startling, giving the best and most glamorous pieces to the widow herself, while decorating the uniforms of the Pontevedrin officials with enough gold braid to be the cause of the country’s looming bankruptcy. Large, imaginative sets from Michael Scott-Mitchell created a fresh atmosphere to accompany each act. Most impressive was the Monet-like waterlily backdrop in Act 2, which complemented the colours in Hanna’s dress, and a brilliant devil-red staircase down which Hanna sauntered in Act 3, dressed in alluring black, to join the grisettes at Maxim’s. Also remarkable was the lighting of Damien Cooper. A new translation by Justin Fleming added to this production, giving a brighter clarity and piqued sauciness to Léon-Stein’s original German libretto.

In the principal role of Count Danilo, Alexander Lewis was inspiring, bringing freshness to the role – his timing and phrasing a joy to listen to. He created a likeable, yet stubborn foil to challenge widow Hanna. His voice was clear and his acting always sparkling, from his entrance as a drunken fop dragged from the excesses of Maxim’s, through to his final resigned acceptance of the Glavari fortune.

Alexander Lewis (Count Danilo Danilovich) and Antoinette Halloran (Hanna Glawari) © Darren Williams
Alexander Lewis (Count Danilo Danilovich) and Antoinette Halloran (Hanna Glawari)
© Darren Williams

Co-principal Antoinette Halloran sang a younger than usual Hanna Glavari – with moments that were perhaps more lemonade than Champagne. Her centrepiece "Vilja Lied", though, was all Champagne, unfazed by the challenge of being carried – not completely steadily and shoulder high – by four young admirers. It was followed by one of the most moving moments of the evening: a beautifully choreographed dance between her and Lewis, silently waltzing over the stage, all their repressed emotions unlocking and bubbling again to the surface: we were left in no doubt that their love for each other still burned strong. It was a great moment of theatre, helped by the persuasive sounds of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, whose playing, from the opening blast of the overture, was always rich and effervescent. Halloran’s most impressive singing came at Maxim's, as she adopted the role of leading grisette/cabaret singer for the "Grisette Song". 

Desiree Frahn was endearing as Valencienne, the secondary heroine, conflicted between her all-too-trusting husband and her all-too-forceful admirer. Frahn impressed all night, bringing a confident dignity to the role, her cheery singing always bright. Her admirer, the French Count Camille de Rosillion, sung by John Longmuir, delivered a delightfully pure tenor voice. His acting skills underscored his persistence in wooing Valencienne, who struggled all night to ward him off.

Desiree Frahn (Valencienne) and John Jongmuir (Camille de Rosillon) © Darren Williams
Desiree Frahn (Valencienne) and John Jongmuir (Camille de Rosillon)
© Darren Williams

The enthusiastic singing and dancing of the chorus of waiters, grisettes, suitors and hangers-on was entrancing, adding much style and enthusiasm to the show, always fresh, ever entertaining and never in the way.

The Merry Widow has a large cast of minor roles, all of whom, apart from a wobbly start in Act 1, sang well. Worth mentioning was the minor role of Praskovia, the wife of the embassy consul, played by Catherine Campbell: with her best Pontevedrin accent her voice commanded my attention every time.

There is much dancing in The Merry Widow. It adds immensely to its appeal, along with its humour and happy ending. Murphy’s skill as a choreographer was very evident throughout. His talent at creating tableaux and designing free-flowing movements for the principal singers all added to the enjoyment of the evening. In this Merry Widow everything came together and it engaged the audience in a gloriously entertaining night of operetta.

****1