Behind the curtain: The Australian Ballet: The Merry Widow
You probably know Franz Lehár’s hilarious operetta, The Merry Widow – but did you know it was adapted into a ballet especially for The Australian Ballet? Since its very first performance in 1975, the production has been one of the most enduring and popular works in the company’s repertoire. This year, for the first time ever, The Merry Widow from The Australian Ballet comes to the big screen – and we’re here to give you a sneak peek behind the curtain of this extraordinary show.
The Merry Widow was quite an extravagant and expensive ballet for its time, but The Australian Ballet’s faith in its quality paid off quite quickly – in the first 2 years alone, it was performed 178 times, to the delight of ballet fans everywhere.
Marilyn Rowe (above left) had the pleasure of being the first ever dancing Widow, followed by the legendary Dame Margot Fonteyn (above right), who at 56 years old charmed the American audiences as Hanna on company’s 1976 North American tour.
Fast forward 42 years later and The Australian Ballet still sweeps both critics and enthusiasts off their feet with this charming tale of love and jealousy.
SET AND COSTUME DESIGN
Nowhere is The Australian Ballet’s love for tradition more apparent than in their continuous use of Desmond Heeley’s original set and costume designs for this production. And why should they change anything when it all resembles the Belle Epoque Paris so perfectly? The lavish sets and sumptuous, flattering costumes clearly tell their own part of the story. My personal favourite is the set of Chez Maxime – with the tall, gleaming mirrors reflecting the shimmering Art Nouveau lights hanging high above the cast, and the dominating red background colour creating a perfect backdrop for the lush and frothy, orange can-can dresses that steal the show in act III.
But it’s not just the final act that brings a true feast for the eyes – Hanna’s first entrance in her black, glittery dress creates a perfect contrast with the light and feathered, innocent white floral frocks worn by every other woman on stage. That coupled with the widow’s elegant movement as she descends the beautiful staircase gives us an impression of Hanna as a more experienced, sophisticated woman whose story’s about to unravel before our eyes.
MUSIC AND CHOREOGRAPHY
The Merry Widow’s original composer, Franz Lehár took about 2 months to fully complete the score for this beloved operetta in 1905. His ingenious imitation of the Parisian can-can dances, coupled with an innovative introduction of waltz tunes into the operetta genre, both stumped his critics and won over audiences everywhere.
70 years later, under the initiative of The Australian Ballet’s artistic director Robert Helpmann, The Merry Widow was transformed into one of the most beautiful ballets in history. Ronald Hynd was tasked with choreographing the whole affair, and you can still see where his inspirations came from – for example, the role of Hanna was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner, Dame Margot Fonteyn in mind. You’ll notice there’s a lot of elegance and effortless stage presence to this character – with a lot of melancholy to her, she’s in perfect contrast to the carefree, young and feisty Valencienne. Finally, perhaps the most challenging and interesting choreography is given here to Danilo – Hanna’s long lost love. What’s fun about this character is that he’s introduced as a fun-loving womaniser who drinks champagne all day at first – but his attitude is forced to change gradually once he realises his usual games won’t work on Hanna.
The principal artists that take on the roles of Hanna and Danilo – Amber Scott and Adam Bull - have been long time ballet partners for a number of years now. You can tell by their chemistry on stage they’re good friends too, and with that comes the kind of trust and openness that makes their every interaction that much more special.
While the emphasis of the story has always been on the main couple, all the other characters shine brightly in this production too. Leanne Stojmenov, who plays the young Valencienne, has a lot of fun with her fiery role – partnered with Andrew Killian as her Disney prince-like lover Camille, the pair flawlessly delivers some of the most comical moments in the story.
Finally as an added treat, there’s a wonderful link to The Australian Ballet’s history in the casting of artistic director David McAllister in the role of Njegus and ballet master Steven Heathcote as Baron Zeta. Back in the day these two enjoyed a lot of performances together – one in particular being The Merry Widow itself, with McAllister as Camille and Heathcote as Danilo.
The Merry Widow from The Australian Ballet will screen in cinemas around Canada from 19 September, UK & Ireland and Germany from 20 September, Spain from 24 September, Denmark from 7 October and Australia and New Zealand from 3 November. Tickets are available to book through cinemas’ own websites or at the box office and participating venues can be found through our Events page.