Merry Widow magnificence

The Merry Widow (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 22 – 20

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From the raise of its curtain, it is clear that Opera Queensland’s production of Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s popular musical “The Merry Widow” is a lavish one. The dramatic set is of an opulent French Art Nuevo period as Act One takes audiences to a Paris embassy ball, where gold glamours in the bold geometry of the decor’s decadent act-deco detail, but also the epaulettes et al of the military costumes of Pontevedrian diplomats and the gorgeous gown of the titular Hanna Glavari (Natalie Christie Peluso)

The beautiful widow Hanna is from the tiny Balkan state of Pontevedro (a stand-in for Montenegro) and her homeland is approaching bankruptcy. The story follows the efforts of Pontevedrin officials at the embassy, primarily the ambassador, Baron Zeta (Jason Barry-Smith), to compel her to marry one of her fellow citizens rather than an enamoured Parisian. And despite his now self-distructive life swimming in pink champagne with the grisettes of Chez Maxime’s supper club, the idealistic Count Danilo (David Hobson) is deemed to be the most fitting suitor. But Hanna and Danilo have a history that sees the story of love in its many guises take some twists and turns (including an expected wedding of the Parisian sort, but not to whom you may expect) along their road to falling in love again.

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Like an Astaire/Rogers Hollywood movie, the narrative is filled with feisty exchanges, mistaken identities and misunderstandings as much as love scenes, with the comedy of confusion cresendoing in Act Two. It’s like a comedy of Noel Coward type manners with operatic melodies… light-hearted and a little bit naughty in its risqué innuendo.

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Justin Flemings adaptation of the libretto is wickedly witty in both its sentiment and creative Cole-Porter type rhymes. And its pithy one-liners are deliciously realised in Hugh Parker measured delivery as Embassy Secretary, Njegus, who mocks the French before becoming ‘Quite Parisian’ himself. Hobson is a humorous drunk when the audience is introduced to the hot-tempered diplomat Danilo and Sam Hartley and Andrew Collins add vaudevillian laughs as Huey and Duey duo, embassy attachés Bogdanovitsch and Pritsch. Then, when a male septet performs ‘Women’ (wonderfully also later reprised by the full ensemble), it is a highly entertaining Monty Python meets MGM musical moment.

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Peluso is captivating as Hanna, easily conveying both her elegance and cheeky spirit. Her crisp soprano sounds soar through the Lyric Theatre, yet she is also affecting in the sentimental love song ‘Vilja, o Vilja’. Opera veteran Hobson is a dashing and suave Danilo, bringing a solid but sweet lyric tenor to his numbers. Together they work well, both theatrically and in vocal duet, most memorably in ‘I Love You So’, the famous Merry Widow Waltz. Also of note is James Rodgers as Camille, French attaché to the embassy and romancer of Barones Valencienne (Katie Stensel). His smooth vocal sounds are richly romantic in capture the character’s blindly-devoted love.

Musically, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra achieves a delightful bright and dynamic Viennese sound, particularly in its strings. The operetta is, however, more than its famous waltz and the orchestra also more than rise to the occasion of its rich and colourful European folk tunes.

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The almost three-hour show, includes two 20 minute intervals, which may seem indulgent, but only until the distinct aesthetic of each act is revealed (Set Designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell). Act Two in Pontevedro is stunningly set against the impressive impressionist backdrop of a Monet waterlily painting with the women dressed in florals and soft colours. Then there is Act Three’s mirrored, metallic-silver shine of Maxine’s where Hanna is hosting a party.

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Not only does the shorter final act feature Hanna’s stunning cabaret-esque entrance, but it opens with an exhilarating, energetic dance number which see dancing waiters with champagne-laden trays can-caning and the club’s girls funning about in frou-frou pink peekaboo tutus. The chorus line numbers not only showcase the dancers’ excellent execution but also the work’s impressive choreography (Graeme Murphy Shane Placentino). Indeed, it is a show of interesting routines that, although eclectic in range from elegant waltzes and folk-inspired routines to sultry Cabaret teases and a Fosse-like while glove showcase circle around Hanna, are all outstanding.

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“The Merry Widow” is a feast for the senses thanks to its considered approach to every aspect of the glamourous production. When, for example, nightclub scene action freezes behind front-of-stage interaction, it creates a sumptuous tableau. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are also richly realised as part of a bigger aesthetic. Ladies sweep about Act One’s ballroom in fishtail evening gowns on the arms of dapper gentlemen, without any restriction to their moment.

There is a reason why “The Merry Widow” is not only a staple of most opera companies, but the fastest-selling Opera Queensland production in over a decade. The work is extravagant to hyperbolic degrees, yet also highly accessible in its narrative, including a twist in the tale of the widow’s millions, and as it is both sung in and has subtitles in English. Under Graeme Murphy’s direction, it represents collaboration of the very best sort. Indeed, with a cast of around 50 singers and dancers, the opulent operetta is certainly magnificent, both is in its vibrant realisation and playful, irreverent tone. It is lively and entertaining down to smallest detail, so serves both as an ideal introduction to the artform, and confirmation of its beauty, especially in its breathtaking full ensemble numbers.

Operatic optimism

Candide (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 23 – August 1

From the creator of “West Side Story” and based on Voltaire’s classic novel, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta “Candide” combines musical theatre, opera and satire in an original and a thoroughly entertaining show of artistry of so many kinds. The story is an epic one that takes audiences on a trip around the world as our eternally optimistic, in spite of extreme misfortune, hero Candide (David Hobson), initially banished from his baronial home, seeks reunion with his love Cunegonde (Amelia Farrugia)

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With war, murder, shipwreck and the Spanish Inquisition, there is much narrative for audiences to absorb in what is a fusion of philosophy and fun, however, the fact that the opera is sung in English ensures that the story retrains its upmost importance, to the point that it appears more like musical than opera. Leonard Bernstein’s score is brilliant and filled with memorably moments such as Cunegonde’s Act One peppy Parisian coloratura aria, ‘Glitter Be Gay’, complete with the bejewelled soprano on swing and glitter cannon sparkle. The show’s final number too, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ leaves audiences on an undeniable high courtesy of its joyous, soul-stirring magic of music and voices combined.

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Under the leadership of its energetic conductor Paul Kildea, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is superb in bringing Bernstein’s beautiful and dramatic score to life. And it is wonderful to see them being showcased on stage amongst the action, rather than hidden away in the pit. Indeed, the staging is impressive, utilising, as it does, the depths of The Playhouse Theatre’s space, yet simultaneously conveying a sense of intimacy through the use of a thrust stage platform.

thrustWith a golden path (representing Candide’s journey) stretching from the depths to front of the stage and a two-tiered scaffold ‘skyscraper’ occupying place behind the bulk of the orchestra, there is much of interest on stage. However, what most effectively brings the story’s journey around the world to such vivid life is the lighting, particularly in Act Two’s South American segment, in which the warmth of Buenos Aires is realised complete with waterfall from the rafters. Costumes also aide in presentation of a strong visual identity, with a range of textures creating a striking, sumptuous aesthetic feast.

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Australian tenor David Hobson does a sensitive job in the role of the buoyant hero Candide, with agile and high-flying vocals that can equally linger with the strings in more melancholy musical numbers. As Cunegonde, Amelia Farrugia is simply delightful and her sparkling soprano reaches the heights with ease. It is Brisbane theatre stalwart Bryan Probets, however, who puts on the greatest show in his multi-roles, however, particularly as the story’s narrator. Whether singing song of his syphilis or showcasing a sexy Spanish dance, his comic talents are always engaging.

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Hilarious too is Christine Johnston (of The Kransky Sisters fame) in her realisation of the quirky, scene-stealing Old Lady, complete with comical limp. Supported as they are by strong character roles, most notably Sarah Murr as Paquette and Jon Maskell as Maximilian, students of Dr Pangloss’s philosophy that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, there appears to be no weak link in the show’s artistic lineup, including the Opera Queensland Chorus which aids in bringing the big numbers to such glorious life.

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Opera Q’s production of “Candide” is a real triumph guaranteed to have you leaving on a hopeful high with a smile on your face and a melody stuck in your heart. Purists may be bothered by its musicalness, however, this allows the show to serve as ideal introduction to opera for the uninitiated. Its musical theatre feel, English songs and focus on story combine to give it an accessibility above and beyond traditional operatic fare to even those who think they don’t like the genre. And bringing new audiences to an art form can only be commended.