Review: The Merry Widow, Adelaide Festival Centre

The merriest of widows promises a night of pure pleasure with State Opera of SA and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Antoinette Halloran and Alexander Lewis in The Merry Widow presented by the State Opera South Australia. Photo Darren Williams.

Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow is truly one of music history’s great success stories. Since its premiere in Vienna in 1905, there have been countless Merry Widow productions, as ballet, as operetta, and on film. The show first played in Australia just three years after its premiere when it opened in Melbourne; it was so popular that it toured the country almost continuously for the next twenty years. So much for the opinion of one Viennese critic who declaimed it as ‘the most distasteful production’ he had ever seen.

This stylish new interpretation moves the action forward from the turn of the century to the 1920s and makes use of every glorious Art Deco aesthetic. From the stunning geometrics of the gold set in Act I to the summer house in Act II and the divinely decadent interiors of Maxim’s in Act III, this production is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. The sets are elegantly sophisticated, so all credit to designer Michael Scott-Mitchell.

The costumes too are wonderful. Designer Jennifer Irwin gives them a sensuality that is perfect for the luscious romanticism of the music. It’s all brought to life in the direction and choreography of the dream-team of Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, who were at the Festival Theatre for opening night.

At its heart, this confection of an operetta is all about desire. Antoinette Halloran is delightful as Hanna Glavari, the wealthy widow from Pontevedro whose fortune is being wooed by some pesky Parisians. Alexander Lewis is charming as her true love, the playboy Count Danilo. There is a real fizz of romance when they are on stage together.

Antoinette Halloran and the Merry Widow Dancers. Photo Darren Williams.

Andrew Turner and John Longmuir shine as Baron Zeto and Camille de Rosillon. Shaun Brown was also a star, stepping into the role of Viscount Cascada to replace an indisposed Jeremy Tatchell. They are supported by an ensemble of excellent singers and the wonderful State Opera chorus in fine voice. Down in the pit, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played with precision and verve under Wyn Davies, a conductor who knows his Widow well.

Amidst the sets and the costumes and the dancing, it is still all about the music. The calls of ‘Bravo’ and ‘Bravi’ from the opening night audience showed their appreciation of the superb singing.

This is a gorgeous night of operetta that will please both opera lovers and musical theatre fans. And it’s funny too, from Count Danilo’s first inebriated steps on stage to the Blackadderian hints of ‘I have a cunning plan’ and echoes of The Follies from Hollywood’s golden age.  

And accuse me of home-town bias if you wish, but I found this State Opera of SA production more engaging than the Opera Australia iteration at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year. There seemed to be an extra sparkle in the cast with the bigger stage giving them room to move and an added touch of luxury to the sets.

Lost for what to buy a loved one this year? Treat them to a night with The Merry Widow and Christmas can come early.

5 stars ★★★★★

The Merry Widow
State Opera South Australia
Conductor – Wyn Davies
Director & Choreographer – Graeme Murphy
Creative Associate – Janet Vernon
Set Designer – Michael Scott-Mitchell
Costume Designer – Jennifer Irwin
Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper
Assistant Director & Choreographer – Shane Placentino
English Version – Justin Fleming
Hanna Glavari – Antoinette Halloran
Count Danilo Danilovich – Alexander Lewis
Baron Mirko Zeta – Andrew Turner
Valencienne – Desiree Frahn
Camille de Rosillon – John Longmuir
Njegus – Mark Oates

29 November – 6 December 2018
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

Dr Diana Carroll
About the Author
Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.