Opera Queensland’s rendition of 'The Merry Widow' is beautiful, sumptuous and a little off-key.
'The Merry Widow' is one of the most successful operettas of all time, and Opera Queensland does it proud.
David Hobson as Count Danilo and Natalie Christie Peluso as the widow Hanna are wonderful as the star-crossed lovers, but the true stars of this production are the costume and set design.
Michael Scott-Mitchell (set) and Jennifer Irwin (costume) have created a luscious world of Parisian Art Deco. Set in the 1920s, the sequins, the flapper dresses and the burlesque outfits the performers wear are divine. Contrasting with the sleek silver and black glamour of the art deco embassy, garden party and brothel sets is the garden party costumes, which focus on the folk tradition of the mythical Balkan homeland of the main characters. Hanna’s bedazzled, peacock-hued folk outfit for these scenes is glorious, and should be available to shoppers immediately.
The music too is light and happy, and for opera novices the English language is very welcome. Having the lyrics of the songs projected for the audience to follow along with also made the piece much more accessible. The main point that let the work down was the plot.
First performed in 1905, it comes as little surprise that the story is a little sexist. Neither gender escapes unscathed as a wealthy widow (Hanna) arrives in Paris and is pursued by multiple gold diggers while really longing for her former lover and erstwhile fiancé, Count Danilo. He claims to want nothing to do with her because of her money, and confirms his life long status as bachelor and brothel-frequenter. Subplots consist of many ladies cheating on their husbands. While the audience needs to see a work through the lens of the period in which it was written, there were some odd creative choices given current politics, such as the MeToo movement, the newly announced national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment etc.
The original story has been adapted by Justin Flemming to give a “droll Australian quality to a very Viennese story”, and the characters do say things such as “Now we’re cooking with gas!”. This begs the question, however, as to why it couldn’t have been adapted a little more so that some Benny Hill-esque sequences could have been played as ironic, or with a wink to the audience to highlight that they know our attitudes to this sort of behaviour have moved on. Scenes such as all the men leering at and following a distressed lady came across as tone deaf, and weren’t germane to the story so didn’t need to be included at all. Several women spoken to after the performance brought these examples up unprompted, and expressed disappointment and disbelief that some of the more recent discussions around women’s experiences hadn’t been considered by the company. It was a pretty big elephant in the room.
Perhaps Opera Queensland’s core demographic won’t be as attuned to these types of debates, but if they are hoping to appeal to a new or wider audience, it would be great for the company to tell some new, more modern stories, or at least keep up with the mood of the times.