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A star-turn in every sense

State Theatre
11/15/2017 -  & November 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 2017
Franz Lehár: The Merry Widow
Danielle de Niese*/Lea Goodwin (Hanna Glawari), Alexander Lewis (Danilo Danilowitsch), David Whitney (Baron Mirko Zeta), Stacey Alleaume (Valencienne), John Longmuir (Camille de Rosiloon), Benjamin Rasheed (Njegus), Richard Anderson (Alexis Kromow), Christopher Hillier (Dominik Bogdanowitsch), Jane Ede (Sylviane), Brad Cooper (Raoul de St. Brioche), Luke Gabbedy (Viscount Cascada), Agnes Sarkis (Olga), Tom Hamilton (Konrad Pritschitsch), Dominica Matthews (Praskowia)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Vanessa Scammell (Conductor)
Graeme Murphy (Director & Choreographer), Janet Vernon (Creative Associate), Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set Designer), Jennifer Irwin (Costume Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting Designer)

D. de Niese (© Jeff Busby)

Only rarely does the opportunity arise for an opera company to welcome home a compatriot who has “made it big” in the wider world. Even less frequent is the chance to realise this welcome as a company debut in a hometown. So it happened that Opera Australia’s inspired leadership by Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini secured the return to Australia of soprano Danielle de Niese for seasons this year in Melbourne and next year in Sydney. So too, the company took the huge decision to throw its extensive resources behind a lavish new production under the direction of much-lauded Australian Director and Choreographer Graeme Murphy and the design team of Michael Scott-Mitchell and Jennifer Irwin.

This production brings the action into the Art Déco period and gives the team liberty to reimagine the opulence of the Parisian diplomatic/social/night-club scene albeit in a fantasy past. Fantasy is what this production is all about. In his Director’s Note, Mr. Murphy speaks of draping “the cast in dreams that float” and it is this aspect which pervades the entire show: there never was a state of Pontevedro; the world was never all about the romantic entanglements of the nobility, and reality is pushed as far away from the everyday as it is possible to achieve.

The sets by Michael Scott-Mitchell are luxurious. Towering metal screens in Déco motifs frame the stage; mirrored surfaces are in abundance; segmented panels in black and silver flank oversized doors and diffused glass hints at the goings on behind without revealing the true identity of the philanderers. This essential element of operetta – the concealment of identity – is everywhere throughout his designs. The characters are given opportunity to flirt, avoid reality and untangle their various romantic dalliances, concealed from the others on the stage but in full view of the audience. Hanna’s garden is depicted on a vast projection of Monet’s Waterlilies with a birdcage summerhouse hinting at the constricted lifestyle in which the characters lead. Mr. Scott-Mitchell has created an entire confectionary world which is gorgeously sumptuous and flamboyantly theatrical.

Inherent in the design of this production are the magnificent costumes by Jennifer Irwin. Full dress military uniforms, gold braided and strewn with medallions and monocles clothe most of the principal men while the women parade a veritable fashion show of the period. The crowning glory of the wardrobe however is reserved for Hanna Glawari who models extravagant designer creations in seemingly unending succession. Perhaps the strongest hint at the unreality of this world is in the sequined and embroidered “National Costume” Hanna wears for the second act. This world never existed, it is the product of fertile imaginations and Ms. Irwin has created a captivating and dazzling palette of period references made the more complex by the Director’s demands for athletic dance routines.

Not surprisingly given his background in dance and choreography, this production makes enormous physical demands of its cast. Not only are the chorus augmented by a troupe of dancers, but most of the cast are required to waltz, polka, Polonaise and Mazurka their way through the production. At one moment, Ms. de Niese is seized by the arm mid-dance-routine and must immediately enter an exchange of dialogue with her male co-lead. Not a situation to be embedded in the show unless the director was supremely confident of the performer’s physical fitness and strength.

With such a large cast of principal characters, there are many stand-out performances. Inevitably however, the nature of operetta focusses on the central protagonists and this production highlights versatility, athletic prowess and acting as much as it does the music.

As Count Danilo, Alexander Lewis returns to a part he has played many times in Australia and abroad. He is the quintessential “tall, dark and handsome” with a strong tenor voice and exceptional dancing ability. He is perfect for this role: charming, confident, and swaggeringly virile.

But every production of this show must have its star “Widow” and Danielle de Niese brings star power aplenty to this, her company debut and opera debut in Australia. That she returns to her home in Melbourne to premiere this show is a detail not lost on her many admirers and fans that flooded the State Theatre to be a part of this triumphant home-coming. She brings a wealth of experience from the major opera houses of Europe and America and a reputation for precision, athleticism and sex-appeal. Dubbed by the press as “the world’s coolest soprano” she is the complete package: a superb singer who dances; a high accomplished dancer who sings; a comedienne of great talent, a personality in every sense, and by no means least, a ravishing beauty whom designers must covet for her super-model looks and deportment. Her rendition of “Vilja” in the second act was exquisite as were all of her solos but she is a team player and her vocal strength in the ensembles spoke of a strong grounding in a wide and varied repertoire.

This production is a massive investment by Opera Australia in every sense and one which is clearly the work of a tight and resolute team. It will serve the company well in this and coming seasons.

Gregory Pritchard



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