Review: The Merry Widow –
West Australian Opera –
His Majesty’s Theatre –
15 July –
Reviewed by Leon Levy
Where is the musical creation that can survive overwhelming popular acclaim and go on to take a place in the serious operatic canon? When considering The Merry Widow, seriousness is hardly the first adjective that springs to mind, and yet the substantial musical achievement that Franz Lehár conjured out of an essentially frivolous story in 1905 rapidly received universal recognition.
But, if the score is its glory, this production of The Merry Widow will surely be seen as something considerably more than that. Hopes were already raised when it was announced that direction and choreography were to be by the Graeme Murphy-Janet Vernon team, and those hopes are realised in every aspect of this richly detailed production, where all elements coalesce into a seamless whole.
As the curtain rises on each act, so the audience is treated to visual splendour, both in the Art Deco interiors and the Impressionist-suffused setting of the Act II party. Each dazzling opening raises an expectation of what might follow, and on each occasion there is no disappointment; on the contrary.
What then of the various elements that make up this resounding achievement? Hanna Glawari, the widow of the title, is inevitably the main focus of the action and, in the role, Taryn Fiebig’s beautiful stage presence radiated the emotions of a woman who has acquired wisdom through personal loss, bringing richness and plausibility to the unfolding story. She certainly has the voice for it and, in the ‘Vilia-ballad’, the ability to maintain control while remaining actively involved in the choreography. That included being raised dramatically by four men while somewhat precariously placed on a small platform, an action that beautifully matched the soaring close to her song.
The other principals were no less vital to the total achievement, with the growing emotional intensity of the developing tale fully reflected in the voices. Alexander Lewis successfully balanced Danilo’s louche lifestyle, centred on the company of the grisettes at Maxim’s, with the socially-aware side of his nature, and made the reconciliation with Hanna satisfyingly real. John Longmuir, ultimately the hapless victim of the shifting dalliances, brought an ardent tenor to his Camille de Rosillon and won some sympathy for his failed endeavours. In the role of Valencienne, Emma Pettemerides conveyed a satisfying ambiguity to her role as the “respectable wife” of ageing Baron Zeta, taken by Andrew Foote, who played to perfection the ambassador of an almost-failed Balkan state and an almost-cuckolded husband. In this he was matched by Michael Loney, whose non-singing but highly communicative Njegus was a highlight of the production.
But it would be grossly unfair to omit enthusiastic acknowledgment of the entire cast —soloists, chorus and dancers alike— and their vital contribution to the success of the production. That the choreography would be superlative —and it truly is— was no less than was to be expected with Graeme Murphy in the director’s chair, but breathtaking sets (Michael Scott-Mitchell), newly-minted and ravishing costumes (Jennifer Irwin), atmospheric lighting (Damien Cooper), a wonderfully witty and supportive English translation (Justin Fleming), plus the impressively secure and idiomatic direction of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra by Vanessa Scammell and the refined playing of the orchestra, ensured that this was a collaboration at a very high level of achievement. The joy of the audience in all of this was palpable on opening night.
It was the dream of the ancient alchemists to turn lead into gold: at His Majesty’s we saw Viennese musical whipped cream turned into theatrical gold. The people of Perth should claim every available seat in order to witness this miraculous transformation!
Top photo: Taryn Fiebig & Alexander Lewis with artists of West Australian Opera in Graeme Murphy’s ‘The Merry Widow’.