State Opera SA
Adelaide Festival Theatre
Until 06 Dec 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

From the moment the curtain opens, the spectacle of “The Merry Widow” inspires awe. The elegant set and lavish costumes instantly transport you to another world. Premiering in 1905, Franz Lehár’s operetta is clearly of a different time. It depicts a Europe that has yet to see two world wars or the devastation of a depression, and even though issues of class and gender are mentioned, they are seen in a hopeful light.

The plot, based on the 1861 comedy play, “The Embassy Attaché” by Henri Meilhac, centres on the recently widowed Hanna Glavari, a former poor farmer’s daughter who has recently inherited her late husband’s fortune. Her home state of Pontevedro, facing bankruptcy, is determined for her to marry a local man rather than a Parisian so they don’t lose the money to France. What unfolds is a series of matchmaking schemes, mistaken identities, and declarations (and denials) of love. It is the stuff farce and fairytales are made of; the humour is found in witty exchanges and slapstick physicality, and the romance is deeply sentimental. While perhaps it runs the risk of feeling out of touch with the complexities of today’s times, “The Merry Widow” instead operates as pure, delightful escapism. Taking place over just two days in a ballroom, a party and a nightclub, reality of everyday life does not factor in. It’s about the dramatics, the heightened emotion, the broad laughs, all emphasised by Lehar’s evocative score. Yet somehow it never feels vapid; you root for the characters, you feel the joy and sadness as they do. It’s a phenomenal experience.

The music is used to marvellous effect, with the characters breaking into song at exactly the moments when everyday language no longer suffices to convey what they need to say. There are grand, romantic numbers and others that are purely played for laughs, and both are equally entertaining. The moments when the male chorus sings together are a true highlight, with the Act 2 number lamenting how difficult women are to understand earning enthusiastic cheers and applause. The vocal talent on display, including many cast members who will be familiar to Adelaide’s theatre scene, is unparalleled, and even those who are not opera fans can be swept away by it. The choreography is simple but meticulous, with every movement finely tuned by director and choreographer Graeme Murphy. This show is clearly a labour of love for Murphy, and it’s obvious by the intricate staging of every moment. You could get lost merely watching the ensemble’s interactions in the background, yet the focus is never pulled from the characters at the foundation of the story.

Antoinette Halloran performs the titular role as though it was written for her, and Alexander Lewis is her perfect counterpart as Count Danilo Danilovich, Hannah’s former lover who was forbidden to marry her due to her low status. Their chemistry is electric, and even knowing how it’ll end does not diminish the pleasure of watching these two proud and stubborn lovers circle each other, refusing to acknowledge how they feel. They play both the humour and the heart superbly. The diplomat Danilo is a classic romantic hero in the vein of Mr Darcy, and Lewis lands not only the wit, but also the deeply tormented soul behind his sardonic facade. Halloran’s Hanna is endlessly endearing; she is charming and authentic, confident yet vulnerable, and the two of them are a delight to watch.

The supporting characters are more broadly drawn, but the performances aren’t loaded down with affectations, but rather played with similar care and craft. Desiree Frahn as Valencienne, a young married woman engaging in an ill-advised flirtation with another man, is a dynamic presence, as is John Longmuir as her lover Camille. Much of the humour comes from the various cuckolded husbands that appear, as well as the men trying in vain to woo Hannah’s hand. Mark Oates stands out amongst the solid cast as the uptight and loyal Njegus—and really steals the spotlight once he gets a few champagnes into him. The ensemble is a spectacle of both sight and sound; the opening moments of every act when they’re in tableaux are breathtaking. The set by Michael Scott-Mitchel and costumes by Jennifer Irwin are truly spectacular, if a little anachronistic. Everything about the show comes together under Murphy’s detailed direction to create the world of Lehár’s creation; it is one quite different from our own, and even though some of the politics are clearly dated, it never feels overtly problematic. The women are given strength, agency and complexity. The love at the centre is pure and based on character—those who seek Hannah’s hand purely for her fortune are dismissed as a joke. Ultimately, the show is a whole lot of fun, and we could all use a bit of that.

At three hours, “The Merry Widow” does ask for a decent amount of your time, but it does not demand it. Rather, it offers you an invitation to step into this life of extravagance and passion, and who could reasonably deny it? That being said, those looking for something more action-packed and fast-paced will potentially be frustrated, and there will also be some who find the laboured musical numbers tedious. If, however, you are looking for lavish escapism in its purist form, as well as some of the most extraordinary musical talent around, you won’t find better than this.