The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Opera Australia and Opera North (UK). Operetta by Franz Lehar. Libretto: New translation and adaptation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with Giles Havergal. Director: Giles Havergal. August – November 2011.

The program for this new production of perennial favourite The Merry Widow reminds us that the previous Opera Australia Widow was Dame Joan Sutherland who, on her first entrance, “appeared at the top of an 88-step staircase surrounded by men and then seemingly effortlessly descended the stairs to stage level”. This extravagant production, said The Australian review, “must have cost a fortune”.

No such budget here, certainly no giant staircase, no steps at all for Amelia Farrugia, La Stupenda’s pocket-sized successor. The settings (by Leslie Travers) are cut-price by comparison. The Act One Pontevedrian embassy has exactly the same saucy Art Nouveau lighting features and 2D chandeliers as the Widow’s Act Two luxury apartment/ballroom. And the plot-pivotal summerhouse — in which Valencienne (Sian Pendry), the Ambassador’s needy wife, has a secret locked-door tryst with overzealous lover Camille (Henry Choo) — is here represented by three unjoined flats flown in and out when required. The cuckolded Ambassador (John Bolton Wood) just has to pretend not to see what’s going on inside.

But the famed operetta with the creaky plot and the gorgeous songs still exerts its magic. Highlights include Farrugia’s full-throated rendition of Vilja, David Hobson’s world-weary I Go To Maxim’s and the 7-man comic rouser Cherchez La Femme, with its wonderful wailing “women, women, women” bridge.

British director Giles Havergal’s drama-lite production is serviceable, as is the “new translation and adaptation” by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who is unprofiled in the program. Opera singers are not renowned for their diction, so the considerable wit of the new lyrics is often lost, best checked on the surtitles high above the stage. The honourable exception is tenor Henry Choo, whose clear words and soaring, crystal voice are a constant delight.

Frank Hatherley

Images: Amelia Farrugia (Adele) and the OA Chorus; David Hobson and Amelia Farrugia; David Hobson and OA Chorus; in Opera Australia's 'The Merry Widow.' Photographer: Branco Gaica.

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