The Merry Widow. Even the title throws you right into the heady, self-indulgent days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before one of its own sons, of little stature, talent or accomplishment, but big ideas and fearless determination, threw a bloody, big spanner in the works. Franz Lehar’s operetta, in three acts, even seems more like a musical at times, especially in the hands of Giles Havergal, director of this brand spanking co-production (Opera North and Opera Australia).
Lyrically, of course, it’s naughty and playful in an almost Carry On sort of way, thanks to a libretto by Viktor Leon and Leo Stein. It could almost be about the police-pommelling Zsa Zsa, this tale of a wealthy widow from a tiny nation, whose compatriots are hell-bent on keeping her (or, more particularly, her money) in their nation, which would be bankrupted without it; much like the Greek economy, sans EU rescue package.
The story’s a hand-me-down, from Henri Meilhac (The Embassy Attache) and is cleverly wrought and, arguably, even better in the hands of Leon-Stein. Suffice to say it’s been a tour de force of the opera stage, ever since it’s debut, in Vienna, shortly after the turn of last century.
Amelia Farrugia is Hanna Glawari, said wealthy widow, and her shimmering soprano, though rending some words into pure tones at the expense of the lyric, is pretty much a thrill a minute. David Hobson plays opposite, as Count Danilo Danilovitch, a would-be cad as stuck on Hanna as she on him, but feigning otherwise, as you do. Hobson was playful right from the top, but as he warmed-up, he really indulged in all the comical nuances of his character, playing it to the hilt, a bit like a straight man from a Marx Brothers classic, or some other high-camp black-and-white icon of cinema; or, say, a Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde play. There’s more ham here than on a deli sandwich. Just the thing to put a spring in one’s step as we slowly emerge from the hibernation of winter. And, of course, his effortless tenor, with its characterful and distinctive vibrato, is always a pleasure.
Mind you, if I had to pick a sentimental favourite (and not just in this production), it would be the charming Henry Choo, as Camille de Rossillon, devoted lover of Sian Pendry’s Baronness Valencienne Zeta, a gentrified, but voracious ex-chorus girl and a clear case of ‘you can take the girl out of the chorus, but you can’t take the chorus out of the girl. Their covert stolen moments remind one of awkward first kisses and fumbling hands. Pendry is a remarkably self-assured actor, as well as vocalist and Choo’s tenor, for mine, is even more attractive than Hobson’s, if anything, even if the odd tremor does creep in.
There were almost countless other highlights in performance and craft, including John Bolton Wood, as the rather sweet-in-his-way, if cuckolded, Baron Mirko Zeta.
Sets and costumes are as grand and lavish as we’ve come to expect from OA and entirely in keeping with the shamelessly bourgeois social strata in question.
If you’ve your doubts about the stage version of Mary Poppins, but are looking for light, bright entertainment, with musical depth, The Merry Widow is a highly-recommended option.
The details: The Merry Widow plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 4. Tickets on the company website.