Australian Ballet – The Merry Widow – Sydney

Adam Bull, Amber Scott and Andrew Killian in <I>The Merry Widow</I>.<br />© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Adam Bull, Amber Scott and Andrew Killian in The Merry Widow.
© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Australian Ballet
The Merry Widow

★★★★✰
Sydney, Opera House
28 April 2018
www.australianballet.com
www.sydneyoperahouse.com

The Merry Widow is Robert Helpmann’s great gift to the Australian Ballet. It premiered in November 1975, soon after he learned his contract as artistic director would not be renewed. Helpmann was devastated and furious but the Widow, his swansong, went ahead and kept going ahead for the next 43 years. The Australian Ballet has perpetual rights in the ballet and the company has staged it more than 400 times since the premiere.
 

Leanne Stojmenov, Andrew Killian and Frank Leo in The Merry Widow.© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Leanne Stojmenov, Andrew Killian and Frank Leo in The Merry Widow.
© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

It was, and still is, a comforting balm for the audience with its sentimental plot, the endless waltzes, the off-again on-again romances, the luxurious costumes and the all’s well ending.  As they say on the plane before take-off, you can sit back and enjoy the flight.

The Widow is back for a three-week season at the Sydney Opera House where old timers like  to remember their favourite casts of the past, from the first season (Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan in the leading roles) to the last time it was staged in Australia, in 2011, with Kirsty Martin, Rachel Rawlins, Robert Curran, Brett Simon and many others in the main roles. Both Martin, now retired from the company, and Simon will be reviving their roles this season.
 

Adam Bull and Amber Scott in The Merry Widow.© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Adam Bull and Amber Scott in The Merry Widow.
© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Amber Scott, as Hanna, the Widow, and Adam Bull, as Count Danilo, were the perfect choice for opening night. Both principals have been in the company for more than 15 years and have danced the roles before. Their ability to interpret Hanna and Danilo has increased with time as they dance/act through the “love you/no I don’t love you” scenes until the ending when Danilo places Hanna’s voluminous white cloak around her shoulders and they waltz to the last note of the music with joy.

The Australian Ballet has no prima ballerinas now and officially never has. If they did, it may well have been Scott for her elegance, stagecraft and purely classical lines. Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne and Andrew Killian as Camille were well cast in their roles of (almost) secret lovers and Colin Peasley, as Baron Zeta, the ambassador at the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris, came back to the stage with aplomb on Saturday evening, 43 years after he played the role at the premiere. Steven Heathcote, the Australian Ballet’s ballet master, will also play the role of the Baron, alongside the company’s artistic director, David McAllister, who will come back to the stage as Njegus – the ambassador’s secretary. The two former principals will be well worth seeing together.
 

Colin Peasley, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in The Merry Widow.© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Colin Peasley, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in The Merry Widow.
© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Helpmann, who wrote the scenario in the ‘70s, was smart with his choice of collaborators – the choreographer, Ronald Hynd, the designer, Desmond Heeley, and John Lanchbery, who arranged and orchestrated the music from Lehar’s operetta. Hynd’s choreography is an amalgam of Viennese waltzes, many lifts, tricky turns (pirouettes in attitude both left and right, then left and right again) and in the second act, a mélange of Russian and central European dances, including a mazurka, polonaise and czardas as the Pontevedrians put on show in their red boots, embroidered black and red vests and skirts, and for the men, baggy pants. Despite the energy exerted by all the dancers, the folk dancing looks dated, as if snippets were chosen from a 1960s/70s Soviet era touring show, while the passionate pas de deux for Valencienne and Camille in Act 2 is the highlight of the ballet.
 

Amber Scott in The Merry Widow.© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Amber Scott in The Merry Widow.
© Daniel Boud. (Click image for larger version)

Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes depicting Chez Maxime in the age of the belle époque are exquisite, with their glorious colour palate of red, orange and  black and white, with the women wearing off-the-shoulder dresses and the men in top hats, white ties and tails. Meehan remembers Heeley telling him he thought he’d gone too far with the design and costumes. As Heeley said, “I’ve never gone this far out on a limb in my life”.  Going that far out on a limb adds immensely to a work that won’t be remembered as a classic in the ballet repertoire, but one that warms the heart.
 
 

About author
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Valerie Lawson is an author and journalist who lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a former arts editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and, from 1990 to 2009, the Herald’s dance writer. Valerie was dance critic for The Australian Financial Review, 1994-2002, and has edited many sections of the Herald including the weekend colour magazine. As a freelance writer, she is a contributor to balletco, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Dance Australia. She holds a Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance and graduated B. Phil. (Hons.) in Ballet and Contextual Studies, from the University of Durham, 2002. Valerie is the author of three books, has recently launched her own website, www.dancelines.com.au and is now writing a history of dance in Australia.

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