The Merry Widow

OA The Merry Widow - photo by Jeff BusbyThere are many reasons to celebrate this magnificent production of a wonderful old warhorse which still manages to enchant more than 100 years after its first performance.

Not the least is the opportunity it affords to experience the performances of Danielle de Niese and Alexander Lewis, two Australian singers who are rapidly establishing themselves as rising stars on International operatic stages. Together they are a bewitching pair and provide the production with a stunning central focus.

Ideally cast as the wealthy young widow, Hanna Glavari, eager to re-fan the flames of a former love affair, Danielle de Niese exudes star power. A convincing actress with a dazzling smile, and lustrous, creamy soprano, she commands attention from the moment she hits the stage. Jennifer Irwin has created a series of sumptuous costumes for her, which she wears with flair, while Graeme Murphy’s staging showcases her excellent dance skills.

Her Danilo, Alexander Lewis, is also an excellent dancer, as well as a fine actor and singer, and their superbly staged scenes together generate a captivating sexual frisson and chemistry rarely seen on operatic stages. Stacey Alleaume and John Longmuir are also beautifully paired, singing superbly and playing the roles of ‘The Respectable Wife’, Valencienne, and her ardent paramour, Camille, with complete conviction.

The first rate supporting cast includes Benjamin Rasheed (Njegus), Richard Anderson (Kromov), Luke Gabbedy (Cascada), Tom Hamilton (Pritschich), Brad Cooper (de St.Brioche), and Stuart Haycock, seamlessly replacing an indisposed Christopher Hillier on opening night, as Bogdanovich, together with Anna Sarkis (Olga Kromov) and Celeste Lazarenko (Sylviane). All were obviously revelling in the opportunities provided by Justin Fleming’s witty new libretto to create some delightfully silly, blustering characterisations.

Graeme Murphy’s carefully nuanced direction bristles with imaginative ideas, and his staging of the various duets is masterly, as is his breathtaking treatment of the second-act story-song Vilja, which climaxes with de Niese being held aloft on a giant water-lily frond in a Monet-inspired setting.

His typically idiosyncratic choreography for his twelve excellent dancers provides the champagne sparkle for each scene, but he has also devised some inspired work for his principals including an entertaining staging of Women, Women, Women, and the dreamy Merry Widow waltz for Hanna and Danilo which climaxes the show.

Then there’s Michael Scott-Mitchells beautiful, soaring art-deco settings, imaginatively lit by Damien Cooper, Jennifer Irwin’s gorgeous costumes, and the impeccable performance of the Opera Australia Orchestra conducted by Vanessa Scammell which nails the authentic Viennese lilt of Franz Lehar’s irresistible score.

What more could you ask? This production is such a feast for the eyes, the ears and the heart that it’s destined to become a treasured memory for anyone lucky enough to experience it.

The Merry Widow
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 5 January 2018
Season continues to 3 February 2018

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Image: Danielle de Niese as Hanna Glavari in Opera Australia’s production of The Merry Widow – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Bill Stephens OAM