The Australian Ballet Dances a Renovated Merry Widow

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Natasha Kusen, Adam Bull and Amy Harris as guests at Chez Maxime in Act III of The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Natasha Kusen, Adam Bull and Amy Harris as guests at Chez Maxime in Act III of The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby. (N.B. Photos are from a different performance from that reviewed.)

The Merry Widow
a ballet in three acts
Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 16 November 2011, 1.30 pm
continues in Sydney until 28 November

Choreography – Ronald Hynd
Scenario – Robert Helpmann
based on the operetta by Victor Léon and Leo Stein
Music – Franz Lehár, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery
Décors – Desmond Heeley
Lighting design – Francis Croese

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Nicolette Fraillon

Hanna – Rachel Rawlins
Danilo – Robert Curran
Valencienne – Madeleine Eastoe
Camille – Andrew Killian
Baron Mirko Zeta the Pontevedrian Ambassador – Colin Peasley
Njegus – Matthew Donnelly
Kromow – Ben Davis
Pritschitsch – Andrew Wright
Maitre d’ – Garry Stocks
Pontevedrian Dancer – Chengwu Gu
Ball Guests, Pontevedrian Dancers, Can-Can Girls, Chez Maxime Diners – Artists of the Australian Ballet

The Merry Widow as a ballet was invented by the Australian Ballet and it has their spirit written all over it: irreverence without sarcasm or cynicism, joie de vivre and any feelings of desperation generally surmountable. It was Robert Helpmann’s brainchild, the Australian actor and dancer who got his launch in the 1930’s in Ninette de Valois’ Sadler’s Wells company becoming a very fine dancer especially in the character and demi-character rôles and a legendary Shakespearean actor too. The idea to make the famous operetta into a ballet came in 1975 when Helpmann was the Artistic Director and the Australian Ballet was only 13 years old and in a bit of a financial pickle. The Merry Widow on the one hand was created to be popular and bring in some money from the box office and succeeded in this, but it was really a very ambitious and visionary idea for it was the company’s first new full length ballet, a genre Ninette de Valois, speaking from experience, emphasized as very important for a growing company to undertake — in the full ‘three act’ ballet in the imperial Russian and earlier French tradition a company must tell a single story over an entire evening. The way Hynd, Heeley and Lanchbery went about putting the idea on the stage goes far beyond mere populism which they knew wouldn’t have helped the young company at all.

The Merry Widow is often said to belong to Helpmann but Ronald Hynd and Desmond Heeley deserve credit for pulling off a creation of art so unified, harmonious and dramatic with so much detail through their ingenious choreography and designs. John Lanchbery was an important original collaborator too: according to the program he had only 40 minutes of music from the operetta to work with. From this he developed a high quality full length ballet score in Lehár’s style, in many places composing music where repeats wouldn’t do. Hynd and Heeley put much more into it artistically than would have been necessary for a cynical blockbuster and clearly they, perhaps with Helpmann’s reminding them, knew that building a loyal audience through a well-maintained high reputation was more important to the company’s financial health than near-term revenues (cf. Opera Australia of 2012!).  The board of the Australian Ballet to much controversy pushed Helpmann out of his directorship the year after The Merry Widow premièred, but obviously the company is in very good health now (financial and artistic) and The Merry Widow must be one of their most valuable assets.

Moreover, the ballet is not a light work nor slight nor fluffy in anyway; it is more even than ‘just a bit of fun,’ though it is fun too. Seeing the ballet on this occasion for the first time in the theater I was surprised how true this was. It is a comedy in the ancient dramatic sense having so much humanity in the closely observed characterization. It is arguably more difficult to pull off comedy than tragedy, especially in ballet: the acting becomes as important as the dancing but often the two are inseparable; and comedy puts so much weight on the dancers’ creating believable characters — not just the principles who could not carry a truly excellent comedy all on their own, but the supporting rôles too. Hynd went even farther than this giving the corps de ballet vital rôles often in the foreground interacting with the principles and supporting characters, for example, but generally using the corps in an unconventional way. Helpmann was always pointing out how dancers’ acting skills were often neglected and that ideally they would be both actors and dancers, but Hynd put into practice this ideal by creating a long ballet which could only be successful if acted well, his restrained avoidance of gimmicks or long sections of virtuosic or athletic technical dancing exposes the acting of the dancers on stage. The varied costumes support this too — often dancers say they finally become a character they’ve been rehearsing so long when they put on the costume, not just through appearance, as important as color, cut and texture are to the whole, but its feel when you move in it and the more intangible, indescribable factor which brings to the theater magic, connecting dancer to décors as well as music.

This season brings the ballet back for the first time in ten years, timed to lead into the company’s 50th anniversary next year. The sets and costumes have been newly restored using Heeley’s original sketches and the Australian Ballet art department deserves high praise as the sets and costumes look sparkling and fresh with their clear colors and seem to be as well integrated as Heeley intended (see also the fascinating wardrobe photos on the Australian Ballet’s blog). The original creators of the principle rôles of Hanna and Danilo, Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan have also taken time to coach the present generation in the parts.

In the first scene, the characters are introduced, all except Hanna, the eponymous rich widow who is introduced only at second hand. At the Pontevedrian embassy, the clerks reluctantly sit down to office work but not before dancing around the room in a funny but still dignified way which has a flavor and style of their national dance which we will see in Act II. The country is bankrupt, and no amount of office work will save it; the old Ambassador comes in and opens the embassy safe but the staff have to remind him of the combination — a perfect natural use of ballet mime, very witty and quite dry. Colin Peasley, who has danced in the Australian Ballet from the beginning returns to play this character rôle and he plays him without a single cringing bit of buffoonery, one I think never laughs at him but rather is inclined to sympathize with the endearing old man even if his playing matchmaker is mainly self-interested. He embodies a certain irreverent and lively national spirit and one can’t help becoming very fond of Pontevedria over the course of the ballet. In this first scene, his scheming with his staff, describing Hanna and his intentions for her are well done natural, comic mime. Here and for the whole cast right through the performance their comic timing was spot on, and they timed this to the unfolding music as well in telling the story. Nicolette Fraillon gets half the credit for this. She conducted a tempo of a fine clip which helped carry the story along — the ballet seemed very short — but also with very expressive ebullience timed to the dancers’ enthusiastic intriguing as well as expressive rubato, for example ritardi at dramatic moments, which can’t always be taken for granted in opera or ballet.

It is a remarkable thing in itself how clearly the dancers (and musicians) told the story without using words. From the synopsis the plot seems impossibly complicated for a ballet, bordering on Le Nozze di Figaro for twists and turns. Perhaps the clarity is partly because the dancers were so deeply into their characters, never seeming to come out of character for a tricky lift in a pas de deux or sequence in a solo, letting the story tell itself, as it were. The Merry Widow, according to some dancers, is not ultra-difficult technically and it certainly isn’t athletic, though Camille and Valencienne’s pas de deux in Act II doesn’t seem easy and there are some intricate lifts in the final pas de deux, but at the pace they took the whole ballet and considering the acting and thought involved in developing the characters, the quick costume changes and coordination on the often full and active stage, surely it is not an easy thing to dance. There are layers of activity in every scene, no character is ever left with nothing to do but continues to do things in the background as new changes come into the foreground. Part of Hynd’s genius is that he manages this without hyperactivity, just great density and always rational activity; he says so much in very few steps, not one is wasted, and he makes great use of a single, simple effective gesture (perhaps there is some Helpmann there) yet there is too much happening at once to catch everything in one viewing and notice all the detail in the costumes and sets.

The ball in Scene Two, with the ballroom having been revealed before our eyes, has the corps de ballet play the guests. They wheel as they waltz each in a different white frilly gown whose skirt is cut asymmetrically, each embroidered with a different species and color of flower: lilacs, old-fashioned roses, daisies, etc., and each has a slightly different exchange with Valencienne, the Ambassador’s young wife, as she is presented. The ballroom is asymmetrical with a staircase on one side and columns and enormous potted palms and ferns, as was the fashion in 1905, entwining with organic art nouveau curves, receding into a Monet-like impressionistic backdrop in yellow-green painted as if with large paint-strokes. Foamy splashes of skirt rumple the even turning of the circle ’round which the couples dance. Hanna makes her entrance on the staircase with the orchestra in perfect sympathy and dramatic timing wearing her black gown with flashing silver stars and moons. According to the program, Hanna’s and the other guests’ skirts, originally very long and training in Heeley’s sketches were cut before the première in 1975 out of practicality but the asymmetry gives the gowns a jauntiness which suits the character of the ballet and complements the choreography of these waltzes. At the same time in this ball scene, we see again the ambassador’s wife Valencienne flirt with Camille under the ambassador’s nose. Again it is extraordinary how much this ballet says in so short a space so coherently.

Hanna and Danilo’s misunderstanding keeps them from partnering each other though their feelings come through the ball formality, which really isn’t especially formal for a ball anyway (Pontevedrians are not naturally stodgy). Their history is told more eloquently than could be sung or explained in words after the guests clear out leaving Danilo alone, pining and pensive. Hanna returns after an unbelievably quick costume change into Pontevedrian peasant costume with velvet vest, Rachel Rawlins’ cascading curls now free. The set is transformed as the lights go down and the mist rolls in to an eery Nympheas blue as we witness the two now more youthful lovers’ meeting again for the first time. The choreography here is fresh and original, and the liveliness and innocence Rachel Rawlins brings her character here emotionally links to the dignified, noble widowed Hanna, lonely underneath but still with a definite taste for life, of the previous scene. We also begin to see under the heavy-drinking comical Danilo as Robert Curran brings to his character the sensitivity and emotional intelligence of a maturing Danilo.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Pontevedrian dancers in Act II of The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Pontevedrian dancers in Act II of The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby.

In Act II in the garden of Hanna’s villa we see the Pontevedrian dancers (again the corps de ballet) in their traditional dance. The special shade of Pontevedrian pink-red in the dancers’ traditional costume matches the trim on Danilo’s Pontevedrian officer’s uniform of the ball scene. Little details like that and so many others one doesn’t notice at a conscious level makes for a very believable world. The scene though quite intense in its way relieves the emotional turmoil of the ball, especially when Hanna takes her enthusiastic solo. Chengwu Guo’s jumps amongst the male corps were extraordinarily light and high with a lingering float at the top. The style of their folk dancing isn’t recognizably of any particular place and with the scenery and costumes imply some mixture of slavic Balkan and farther eastern, perhaps in some fictitious fold between the real west and east in the Black Sea. The women, with slender expressive fingers, dance an adagio separately, with suspenseful dramatic tension, especially so in contrasting with the men. Somehow these seem more than divertissements but rather reflect the inner thoughts of the main characters.

Afterwards, in the garden, Camille and Valencienne meet alone and he, without much pushiness, persuades her into the pavilion. They are found out by the Ambassador’s secretary, Njegus, who locks them in, but the Ambassador comes by with Danilo at that moment. A very well-played slapstick gets the key from the secretary — not necessarily at all an easy form of comedy even for a ballet dancer. Meanwhile Hanna gets Valencienne out a backdoor and replaces her inside, then as she is revealed to the Ambassador she announces her engagement to Camille despite not loving each other and despite its finishing off all hope for her country (though avoiding the diplomatic incident). Hanna, with her selfless sense of nobility, lonely and disappointed, in rescuing Valencienne is a little too willing to self-sacrifice.

Act III finds all at Chez Maxime to drown their sorrows, whether political or personal or both; seemingly defunct is their plan to fight with love and culture Pontevedria’s “sovereign debt crisis.” The set has generous sinewy art nouveau ornament in varying shades of orange and red and simple wrought iron chairs and tables and mirrors in the back wall, more subtly like zinc than perfectly reflecting mirrors, giving an interesting sketchiness to the backdrop, varying in color with which group happens to have the floor at any moment. First the corps de ballet shine again, now as fashionable Diners in dresses with black bodices and white skirts with spidery art nouveau patterns in black curling down the skirts, each one slightly different and Can Can Dancers in many-layered orange-yellow and black and men in tuxedos who come in escorting the dining ladies. The swing of the dresses and tux jacket tails, the throw and splash of the manic Can Can Girls and their many skirts, who don’t actually dance a conventional Can Can but something more varied, balletic, unconventional and individual, create a wild scene of controlled chaos. The intricate way they draw in and interact with the men — eventually they are lifted and all revolve around the central champagne fountain kicking — is more than worthy of a 1930’s Fred Astaire film. At the same time new minor characters are introduced: the maître d’, a pushy woman in a black and yellow striped gown who introduces herself to Valencienne (wearing a very chic pale yellow dress) with her completely lost daughter in tow, and others. We forget Pontevedria’s and Danilo’s, Hanna’s, Camille’s, Valencienne’s and the Ambassador’s problems for a moment. The champagne flows and foams, but the characters don’t forget their bruises.

Arists of the Australian Ballet as Can Can dancers at Chez Maxime in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Arists of the Australian Ballet as Can Can dancers at Chez Maxime in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Hanna appears out of nowhere in her famous feathery cloak and all seem to stop short; Hynd plays with perception and sleight of hand. She is just as dignified as when she entered the ball in Act I but now sadder. Camille is there too and after finding a stinging and angry Valencienne, gets into a fight with Danilo which Hynd very cleverly and originally choreographs: the two men turn fast pirouettes close together in opposite directions after the quick escalation The duel challenge is not suggested explicitly. The restaurant clears and leaves Hanna alone, pensive and despondent. How can their problems possibly be solved? Very simply Danilo returns to the stage with the feathery cloak and before she sees him he puts it round her shoulders. The reconciliation is so much the sweeter and timed perfectly with our emotions to lead into the famous waltz. Again Hynd combines historical elegance of style with very deep and subtle expression. All the relief of the pushed and pulled emotions are in their dance and Rachel Rawlins is always in character even in the very tricky flipping lifts where she floats falling back. She is very subtle in her expression, never hammy at all or obvious or overdoing any facial expression.

The Valencienne-Camille affair is resolved too as they mutually sweep each other off their feet, now publicly, though the Ambassador’s pain is clear as Colin Peasley very simply and effectively expresses it with pathos in a single poignant gesture. Valencienne is self-centered in Act I, more interested in having her new necklace noticed than in her husband’s country’s troubles, but becomes more a sympathetic person with flaws who is lively and inclined to be impetuous, and finding herself in the wrong marriage. Madeleine Eastoe somehow convinces one of an underlying and at first hidden sweet nature with the character. Even at the end she doesn’t seem completely unsympathetic toward the Ambassador. Something of Hanna seems to rub off on her and vice versa. Camille though maybe unprofessional as the French attaché getting romantic with the Ambassador’s wife seems to understand and count on the Pontevedrian’s resilient attitude and common sense.

The music under Nicolette Fraillon’s direction was amazing in its fine texture and subtle playing. Though the score is ultra-tuneful and sometimes a little repetitive, incredibly none of the tunes were stuck going around in my head the next day. The lucidity of the high strings in varied shades of bright vibrato-less dissonance and singing woodwinds found expression beyond the mere beautiful, finding different moods and lyrical modes in each repetition; perhaps one could draw an analogy with the varied costumes and choreography in the corps de ballet. All the instruments were clear and audible despite the infamous acoustics of the hall where the string players often have to wear earplugs. It was surprising and remarkable the degree of detail and subtlety Fraillon managed to not only find in the score but bring out from the orchestra pit; it is hard to imagine better played music in the Opera Theatre. The orchestral expression and Fraillon’s subtle interpretation of the music also had a very close rapport with that of the dancers, forming a single whole piece of theater with the dancing so it was more than dancing music but both seemed to be expressions of the other simultaneously. The whole company outdid themselves on this occasion. They made real theatrical magic with music and décors taking part to create a very real world completely immersing the audience.

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About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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