The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet. Choreography: Ronald Hynd. Scenario: Robert Helpmann. Design: Desmond Heeley. Music Franz Lehar. Lighting Francis Croese. Canberra Theatre. Until May 30. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
There is a lot for audiences to enjoy in the Australian Ballet’s current production of The Merry Widow: well-known tunes that have some people humming along; lots of waltzing; costumes that evoke the period of the Belle Epoque in Paris; and sets that generate applause. As well, on opening night the production was enhanced by a performance that simply sped along with spectacular dancing from every member of the cast. The show had the audience laughing at the humorous moments (even if, or perhaps because, they slipped into pantomime mode at times), clapping when bravura steps were performed, and even shedding a small tear as the story of love conquering all was resolved in the final moments.
Lana Jones as the wealthy Widow from the principality of Pontevedro, whose relationship with a certain Count Danilo is the focus of much of the action, gave a beautifully considered performance. Technically, her fluid body and limbs were beautifully attuned to the music. But it was her maturity as an artist that shone as she moved through a range of emotions and as she handled the intricacies and intrigues of the somewhat convoluted plot.
Adam Bull as Count Danilo, who eventually the Widow accepts as her next marriage partner, also handled the complexities of his character with style. He had to move from inebriation in the first act, to playboy and showman in the second act, and on to the man the Widow would eventually marry in the third. His dancing was especially impressive in the second act as he joined in the feisty display of national dancing with his Pontevedrian compatriots.
Chengwu Guo as Camille, a minor official in the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris and Ako Kondo as Valencienne, whom Camille loves although she is married to the Ambassador, the elderly Baron Zeta, also gave entertaining and technically strong performances. As for Colin Peasley, who danced as Baron Zeta, his performances in this role have always been exceptional. He is able to evoke a range of feelings in the audience with his clarity of gesture and movement. He was ably supported by his sidekick, his secretary Njegus, danced by Franco Leo.
The Merry Widow was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 and the Canberra opening night was its 427th performance by the national company. Not many full-length ballets last as long as that while still retaining such a strong position in company repertoire. What is it about this ballet? Without detracting for a moment from the production and performance, it is, I suspect, Robert Helpmann’s flair as a man of the theatre that is at the heart of the ballet’s success. Helpmann wrote the scenario, which he adapted from that for the operetta of the same name. He was always able to extract the essential features of a story so that it could be translated effectively into dance. He knew just how much comedy to put with more dramatic moments and exactly what needed to be highlighted so the story unfolded smoothly and clearly.
Some may prefer their dance experiences to have more intellectual content but The Merry Widow will always remain an audience favourite. Don’t miss it. It has a touch of Helpmann.