David Rogers-Smith and Ali McGregor in The Merry Widow

It’s not opera. Even ‘operetta’ as a description seems to defy this production, which owes more to modern musical theatre, even screwy golden-era Hollywood rom-coms, than anything else.

But whatever it is, it’s damn good fun. And pretty smart. Another triumph for Melbourne Opera (and director Hugh Halliday), which sets the bar at just the right height for its audience as much as for itself.

Franz Lehar’s French-set farce remains a timeless treat, simply in its irresistibility as a frothy piece of entertainment. The story — the rich widow and her countrymen’s attempts to woo her love and money back to their principality — is suitably silly, wrapped in one of the canon’s most euphonious scores.

And the production is what we’ve come to expect from this ambitious little company: faithful and esoteric. There’s a contemporary nod or two; some nice gags about the GFC and a carbon tax. The English translation annoys purists; personally it depends on the production — its anglo-dubbed Madame Butterfly last year seemed almost sacrilege, but here the English libretto (new lyrics by Gregg Opelka and dialogue by Jack Helbig) works. But more than that, there’s a palpable spirit in the company, borne of amateur theatre but with a professional polish. It attracts fine performers, indeed, but its the material that is allowed to shine.

And so you neglect the somewhat cardboard-looking sets (focus, instead, on the sumptuous costumes). And the few missteps in Michele Forbes’ otherwise ebullient choreography. And the odd flubbed line or two on opening night. Because as the impressive Melbourne Opera Orchestra (under David Kram’s baton) swells, and these wonderful voices echo around the majestic Athenaeum (one of the loveliest theatre experiences in town, even if it’s in desperate need of a reno), it can be as good an opera exploit as you’ll find in these parts.

There’s real wattage about Ali McGregor in the jolly widow role. Not just because of her relative fame and finely-tuned, Opera Australia-trained soprano instrument, and not simply for a dazzlingly disarming smile, but for being a performer of such all-body grace. She commands the stage (perhaps all sopranos should try their luck as cabaret or even burlesque performers; McGregor has done both to spectacular success) with deft comic timing and bewitching charm. (McGregor will sing only once more, on March 19, with Dominique Oyston subbing at other performances.)

And with David-Rogers-Smith, a classy Melbourne Opera veteran, as the playboy Count this screwball romance is an utter delight. The entire ensemble was terrific on opening night, particularly the hapless blokes trying to save their women and their homeland: Geoff Harris as Baron Zeta, Roy Best as Camille, Jerry Kozlowski as Kromov and David Gould as scene-stealing Njegus. Lee Abrahmsen, too, is divine as Valencienne.

Really, just about as merry as can be.

The Melbourne Opera Chorus in The Merry Widow

The details: The Merry Widow plays three more performances — March 15, 19 and 20 — at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne. Tickets through Ticketmaster. The production has one show at the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre on April 2 and returns to Melbourne on April 8 for a performance at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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