Dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet (2018)

12 May 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

If you enjoy sitting in the theatre and being swept away by waltzes and ladies being lifted high in the air by their male partners, along with elaborately decorated costumes and sets and nothing too challenging in the way of storyline, then the Australian Ballet’s Merry Widow is for you. This production was last seen in 2011 but dates back to 1975 when it was commissioned by Robert Helpmann as the first full-length ballet to be made on the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ronald Hynd, designed by Desmond Heeley, with music by Franz Lehar arranged by John Lanchbery, and a scenario by Helpmann, it was in the early days closely associated with Margot Fonteyn. She performed the role of the Widow, Hanna Glawari, in Australia as well as elsewhere during guest seasons with the Australian Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer
Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow, 1977. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

But Australian Ballet principals of the day, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, John Meehan and Kelvin Coe, and others throughout the years, also made it their own. Rowe was repetiteur for this 2018 production.

In the cast I saw Amy Harris and Brett Simon danced the leading roles of Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilowitsch, former childhood sweethearts whose attraction to each other is eventually renewed. While they both danced strongly, for me their involvement in the unfolding story was not the highlight of the show. On the other hand, I admired Sharni Spencer and Joe Chapman as the secondary leads of Valencienne and Camille, the Count of Rosillon. They invested more into the realisation of their characters and, as a result, were much more captivating to watch. And their pas deux in Act II, was really the choreographic highlight amongst all the waltzes and other predictable steps.

There was some strong character work from the male corps de ballet of Pontevedrian dancers in Act II and my attention was especially drawn to a gentleman, who I think was Joseph Romancewicz. He not only danced well but maintained his character when not dancing. It doesn’t always happen and when it does it is very noticeable.

Audiences love this ballet and it is clearly a money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, but after more than forty years I think it needs a redesign. Heeley’s costumes are individually glamorous and suitably of the Belle Epoque period, if sometimes rather too strongly coloured. But when seen en masse against his over lavish sets, and when lit with strong theatrical lighting, the overall design is unsubtle and inelegant to the point of seeming tasteless.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2018

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as Can Can ladies in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Manon, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

3 thoughts on “The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet (2018)

  1. Hi Michelle

    It’s Alex de Ravin again. This time I’m reacting to the photo you have here of Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow, 1977.

    I found a tiny bit of film of Dame Margot dancing part of a solo from the ballet and uploaded it to my (JohnHall) YouTube channel.

    I was wondering if you knew if more of the whole of this was filmed?

    This is my YouTube post – please correct any inaccuracies:

    Dame Margot Fonteyn – Solo with Ensemble from ‘The Merry Widow’ (1976-7)

    This is one of my scraps – this time, footage of Dame Margot Fonteyn, as Hanna in ‘The Merry Widow’, dancing a solo and being partnered by an ensemble of gentlemen. It is with the Australia Ballet in 1976-7.

    ‘The Merry Widow’ had been mounted for the Australian Ballet by Sir Robert Helpmann in 1975, with choreography by Ronald Hynd and designs by Desmond Heele. John Lanchbery and Alan Abott had adapted music for the work from Franz Lehar’s romantic operetta.

    The original cast included Marilyn Rowe (Hanna), John Meehan (Danilo), Lucette Aldous (Valencienne), Kelvin Coe (Camille), Colin Peasley (Baron Mirko Zeta) and Ray Powell (Njegus).

    The quality of the film is … well, it can’t be put another way … it’s lousy. But I’m going with the idea that something is better than nothing as I can’t see any commercial footage extant.

  2. Hello Alex, I have not come across a film of The Merry Widow from the Fonteyn period, which doesn’t mean there isn’t one of course. The Australian Ballet may well have filmed it, in which case I guess it would be in their archives somewhere. Looking at your YouTube post I wonder whether it may have been recorded on J format videotape, which was all the rage at the time. It was a new format and turned out to be quite unstable so items recorded that way have had to be preserved onto more stable formats. But the process is never entirely successful and items always have that ‘lousy’ (as you put it) look about them.

  3. hello again Michelle. i agree about the type of videotape used back then, which apart from its inherently lower quality, could degrade over time. happily we are in an era where crystal clear video file formats can be used. as this little bit of footage was used in the documentary, i’m imaging (or hoping perhaps!) that it was selected from a greater swath of film – it’s hard to believe one would film only just such a small section of a performance. i’ll do some research about and tell you if i find anything.

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