The Merry Widow

OA-The-Merry-Widow-photo-by-Prudence-UptonThe Merry Widow was the perfect choice for Opera Australia’s return to the Sydney Opera House after an absence of 10 months because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

Attending the performance however was a slightly unsettling surreal experience with the faces of the audience unrecognisable behind masks, social distancing, and no bars operating during the intervals.

Not that the carefully monitored restrictions dampened the enthusiasm of the audience, which enthusiastically cheered and applauded the performers at every opportunity.

Graeme Murphy’s sumptuous production was first seen in Sydney in 2018 with Danielle De Niese as the widow, Hanna Glavari and Alexander Lewis as Danilo.

This 2021 revival has been carefully restaged by revival director, Shane Placentino with Julie Lea Goodwin, who played the widow at the matinees in the 2018 season, and with whom Lewis was so successfully teamed for the Opera on Sydney Harbour production of West Side Story, stepping into the role of Hanna Glavari. They are a thrilling combination.

Julie Lea Goodwin gives a genuine star performance as Hanna Glavari. Confident, elegant and beautiful, with a crystalline soprano, she was every inch the beautiful widow worthy of the adoration of the bevy of males surrounding her.

Matching her every step of the way, Alexander Lewis, with his rich tenor voice, manly swagger and confident sex appeal, was funny, moving and compelling as the lover whose ego had been bruised by their previous encounter.

Both are superb singers, accomplished actors, and most importantly for this production, excellent dancers. It was fascinating to watch them mine Justin Fleming’s witty English translation for subtle nuances to bring unexpected depth to their characterisations as two former lovers who suddenly find themselves in a position to rekindle their relationship.

There’s a particularly memorable moment when Danilo hides in shadows of the garden pavilion to listen to Hanna sing Vilia knowing that she is really singing for him. His presence, although subtle, provides context for a song which is often just a set-piece for Hanna.

Murphy’s staging for this scene is particularly masterful in a beautiful setting inspired by Monet’s water lily paintings. As the song ascends to its climax, he has Hanna seated on a giant water-lily frond gently lifted skyward by three male dancers. The result is pure magic.

His stagings of the duets and ensemble numbers are also inventive, and his choreography for the large ensemble of excellent dancers often surprises with its originality. Indeed his first act finale waltz drew cheers from the first night audience.

It’s a pity therefore, during a dance by the grisettes in the third act, a stunning lapse in taste has the girls drop to all fours to display their red knickers in a move so vulgar and demeaning that one can only feel embarrassment for the dancers required to execute it.

An impressive supporting cast of Opera Australia heavyweights including David Whitney (Baron Mirko Zeta), Richard Anderson (Alexis Kromov), Tom Hamilton (Konrad Pritschich), Dominica Matthews (Praskovia), Jane Ede (Sylviane) Luke Gabbedy (Viscount Nicolas Cascada) and Brad Cooper (Raul de St.Brioche) all returning in the roles they created in 2018, revelled in their over-the-top operetta characterisations, while Benjamin Rasheed (Njegus) almost stopped the show with his outrageous antics in Quite Parisian.

Stacey Alleaume was again a delightfully flirtatious Valencienne, but took a little time to adjust to her new Camille de Rosillon, Virgilio Marino, who despite his fine tenor voice seemed miscast as the ardent lover.

But of course, as beautiful as this production is, it is Franz Lehar’s gloriously tuneful score that keeps audiences coming back to The Merry Widow. Conductor Brian Castles-Onion clearly delights in its riches.

He confidently guides his orchestra and cast from the overture, which he takes at an exhilarating clip, through the dreamy duets, the lush waltzes and stirring national dances, all superbly played by the Opera Australia Orchestra, leaving the singers room for romantic flourishes while never allowing the evening to flag, providing the perfect ambience for Murphy’s gorgeous production to work its magic.

The Merry Widow
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Tuesday 5 January 2021
Season continues to 16 January 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: The cast of The Merry Widow in Opera Australia’s production at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM