Less than a week after the close of its Murphy retrospective, the Australian Ballet opened on a very different work of equally compelling historical significance: The Merry Widow. Premiering in 1975, this joyously romantic ballet was the brainchild of Sir Robert Helpmann and the company’s first full-length commission. Helpmann himself adapted the scenario from Franz Lehár’s operetta. Ronald Hynd was brought in from England to choreograph, and Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan danced the first Hanna and Danilo. Francis Croese designed the lighting and Desmond Heeley the plush costumes and sets, painting into existence a richly-hued Belle Époque of careless jewels and Champagne, where gold velvets and silk trains could swirl in the scarlet glow of chandeliered ballrooms.

Adam Bull (Danilo) and Amber Scott (Hanna) © Daniel Boud
Adam Bull (Danilo) and Amber Scott (Hanna)
© Daniel Boud

Importantly, Helpmann also adhered to the spirit of Lehár’s original score, commissioning John Lanchbery to adapt the operetta into an orchestral arrangement suitable for dancing. For the young company, the result was a triumph. During the final pas de deux on that first opening night, the audience was moved to sing as the orchestra played the famous Merry Widow Waltz. By 1976 the ballet had become an international calling card, with Margot Fonteyn leading the company as Hanna in its New York and Washington debuts.

Today, The Merry Widow remains a sumptuous pleasure. Artistic Director David McAllister took pains to ensure the production was historically informed, rehearsing dancers from the original Benesh notation, recalling Rowe as guest repetiteur, and restoring costumes from the original drawings. The outcome of this historical fidelity is a ballet that has not dated in the slightest. It remains gorgeously fresh, proving the genius of Helpmann’s vision and reminding us that compelling ballet is, at its heart, about singularity of expression rather than technical fireworks. Hynd’s choreography is beautifully simple – Hanna’s steps were choreographed with minimal allegro to accommodate an ageing Fonteyn – but in no way does this lessen its captivating charm.

Amber Scott (Hanna) © Daniel Boud
Amber Scott (Hanna)
© Daniel Boud

As Fonteyn and Rowe made clear, The Merry Widow turns on the charisma of its leads. Amber Scott shone in the title role, dancing with an enchanting delicate grace. Her Hanna was witty and warm, giving important humanising nuance to an otherwise glamorous character. Adam Bull was a dashing and tender Danilo, and his Act 2 Pontevedrian solo showcased exceptional rhythmic precision. Together, the leads brought such effortless expression to their pas de deux that one almost forgot the steps for sheer romantic joy.

Leanne Stojmenov was delightfully sunny as Valencienne, and Andrew Kilian danced a stylishly hapless Camille. Their pavilion pas de deux was especially strong. Colin Peasley, always a joy and the original Baron, returned for his 43rd year in the role, supported by Franco Leo as the faithful Njegus.

The corps were in fine form, with Act 1 demonstrating gracious partnering and soaring lifts. Act 2 could have benefited from greater accuracy in the male corps’ stage placement and rhythm, with the Pontevedrian sequence lacking the stylistic strength and panache so central to character dancing. The female corps were nevertheless a delight in Act 3, lighting up the Can-Can and Cakewalk numbers with twinkling coquettishness (no easy task in oversized feather-hats).

Finally, one cannot discuss The Merry Widow without mentioning its music. The ballet draws enormous expressive beauty from Lehár’s melodies (brought to life by the Opera Australia Orchestra under Guest Conductor Paul Murphy), and provides an exceptional example of an opera-to-ballet adaptation.

Colin Peasley (Baron), Leanne Stojmenov (Valencienne) and Andrew Killian (Camille) © Daniel Boud
Colin Peasley (Baron), Leanne Stojmenov (Valencienne) and Andrew Killian (Camille)
© Daniel Boud

In my experience, operatic music does not always survive the transfer to narrative ballet. John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon are well-known examples, with neither ballet containing a note of the operas that initially inspired them. The reason, in part, can be due to the challenges of dispensing with operatic recitative or dialogue, and orchestrating arias into a length and form capable of sustaining balletic interest. For this, Lanchbery’s arrangement deserves special attention and comparative analysis. His orchestration creates new dramatic points through a free recutting of Léhar’s original themes, taking liberties that prove surprisingly effective in enabling danced narrative.

The most obvious instance is the celebrated Vilja Lied, which in the operetta provides an Act 2 showpiece for Hanna but transforms, in the ballet, to Act 1’s emotional high point as Danilo falls into poignant remembrance of lost love. Lanchbery’s reworking is irresistibly balletic, giving strong choreographic support and conveying emotional drama, whilst remaining faithful to Lehár’s beautiful melodies.

As such, my non-dancer guest left the theatre humming the Merry Widow Waltz, much like the audience on that first opening night. An indication that this joyous ballet remains undimmed and as charming as ever.

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