Ah, wonder of wonders! Bliss. Sublimity. The Australian Ballet’s revival of its 1975 production of The Merry Widow loses nothing at all to the sands of time. In its 385th performance, it sports the dualistic genius of Robert Hynd’s spectacular choreography, as well as the comical eccentricities of Robert Helpmann’s scenario. Who would’ve thought a boy from Mt Gambier would wow the world in the ways he did?
Franz Lehar’s romantic themes (as adapted by Lanchbery and Abbott) buoy the storyline along, while the dancers waltz their way through as if semi-suspended in lunar low-gravity. Every lift is sprung like the rebound from a top-dollar running shoe and there are one or two breathtaking moves almost worthy of circus, such as that in which the count (Adam Bull) vertically twirls Hanna (Amber Scott) as effortlessly as he might a mace. I even heard myself murmur, ‘wow!’.
But it would be literally impossible, to say nothing of utterly inequitable, to single out one or another principal dancer as shining more brightly, as all are technically and, more importantly, aesthetically superb. It’s like the Melbourne Cup just run, in which not so much as a nose separated the horses at the front. Well, a little like that; with the male dancers sporting a suitably, usefully equine musculature and the females as lithe and flexible as double-jointed Barbies.
The first time I saw this amazing work was as a student at the Australian Ballet School peering through a crack in the door of Studio One, at the old Ballet Centre, in Flemington. The company was preparing for the Mexican leg of its international tour. Even danced in calico practice skirts and sweaty rehearsal gear, it was the epitome of elegance and glamour. As I watched the dancers waltz majestically around the studio, all I wanted was to be in there.
Quite simply, this is a flawless ballet, resplendent in every detail; the kind that makes a critic’s job the easiest and most difficult in the world, at once. Easy, because there’s nothing to criticise. Difficult, because, well, there’s nothing to criticise. The only challenges here are for the performers, who betray nary a sign of facing one. The cast acts as if they’d graduated with high distinctions in that discipline. The score shimmers with a Hollywood-like sheen, never more lushly than in the exuberant hands of Nicollette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. The frocks alone are enough to have you in raptures, swirling and revealing their complementary colours like so many proud peacocks.
Of course, even with superlatively realised performances, it’s hard not to keep coming back to Helpmann’s opulent, evocative, no-expense-spared design, which, quite rightly, inspired as much applause as anything else. If one should’ve harboured the slightest doubt about the versatility or prodigy of his talent, it would’ve been extinguished from curtain-up. And one could be seduced into thinking it’s still 1975: yes, that is Colin Peasley, as Baron Mirka Zeta, reprising his opening night role of that year, without missing a beat. One can reminisce, too, thanks to the suggestions of the sets and costumes, of the heydays of belle epoque and rococo; the ornamental, for ornamental’s sake.
Not so nostalgically edifying is the realisation that when this production first hit Sydney, it was at the long since defunct Regent, now KFC and a glass tower. And yes, if you thought it featured Dame Margo as Hanna, you’ve still got your marbles.
Hynd and Helpmann’s populist masterpiece has been nothing if not influential: the National Ballet of Canada, Royal Danish, American Ballet Theatre (Houston), Vienna State Opera Ballet and Pacific Northwest have all adopted it into their repertoires. And it’s comforting to know what might otherwise have become a relic can be revived and reanimated so consummately. It’s as if it’s never been away.
The fact the current artistic director was still a novice when he first glimpsed it is testament to its brilliance and longevity. And perhaps his retelling of his sneak peek lends the fullest sense of awe and wonder.
The details: The Merry Widow plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 28. Tickets on the company website.