The diplomat Danilo’s motto is “Love quite a lot, promise rarely, marry never”. But it’s a hard standard to live up to when the whole of Pontevedro is vying for the attention of the love of his life, wealthy widow Hanna. Someone has to keep the immense fortune (and the person attached to it) in the country.

Yes it’s Lehar’s The Merry Widow, bubbling over with opulence and mirth in a new production by Graham Murphy. The Opera Conference production premiered in Perth on 15th July as part of WA Opera’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Taryn Fiebig made her long-overdue company debut as Hanna under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, WA Opera’s first female conductor.

Taryn Fiebig as Hanna in The Merry Widow. Photos by James Rogers

If there was a lot of champagne overflowing at the interval celebrations there was just as much on stage. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish Art Deco set, Justin Fleming’s new streamlined English translation and Jennifer Irwin’s dazzling costumes were the backdrop for a dance-infused show where every act was a party fizzing with romance and comedy.

Immense bronze latticework set the scene for the Embassy Ball, with sequined dresses and the gilded braiding of 1920’s Parisian high society shimmering under Damien Cooper’s creamy lights. The breathtaking Monet garden setting for Act Two’s Pontevedrian party drew spontaneous applause as the curtain lifted on a waterlilies backdrop, pastel frocks and dreamy lighting. Lehar’s ‘Love Unspoken’ wafted through this setting like an evening breeze and Fiebig and Alexander Lewis as Danilo delivered a heart melting waltz. But it was not enough to break Danilo’s scruples about money and Hanna becomes embroiled in the fledgling affair between the Baron’s wife Valencienne and a young Frenchman Camille. It was not until the Act 3 nightclub party where she joined the ‘Grisette’ girls that this high-kicking heroine revealed the details of her inheritance and steals back Danilo’s heart.

Fiebig and Lewis as Hanna and Danilo

Lehar’s score is infused with folk dances, waltzes and marches and Murphy drew on his vast background in choreography and his intimate knowledge of The Merry Widow (he danced in The Australian Ballet’s famous 1975 production) to produce an operetta brimming with movement. In fact the production was so busy there were moments where it only just held together. Fortunately the cast and creative team were well-picked to deliver the complex theatrics.

Lewis and Fiebig were youthful, full of life and constantly tripping over their love for each other. Their background in music theatre meant their dancing was as alluring as their singing. Lewis cut a rakish character from his drunken arrival looking for a desk so he could sleep (“Beds are for making love, desks are for sleeping; I only have to look at a desk and I’m out like a light.”) to his elegant dancing and delightful  light lyric tenor. Fiebig was entrancing with her clear-as-a-bell top notes offset by a growling cabaret showgirl routine all the while navigating four incredibly lavish gowns.

Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis Act 3

Emma Pettemerides was big-eyed and sweet-voiced as the flirtatious Valencienne and John Longmuir sung the besotted Camille with a honey smooth gleam. Actor Michael Loney proved he could also sing and dance in a showstealing camp rendition of ‘Quite Parisian’ Baritone Andrew Foote’s comic excellence was put to good use as the foolish Baron Zeta while Sam Roberts-Smith and Jonathon Brain were quite ridiculous in their rivalry for Hanna’s fortune.

A 12-strong dance corps added feathered Grisette routines and Slavic folk dances. Murphy also put the WA Opera chorus through their paces with detailed choreography. “Women” became a Broadway-style male ensemble number complete with tuxedos, white gloves and slapstick moments such as a larrikin Mexican wave.  Throughout all the activity the chorus sound was warm hued and clean.

Fiebig and the male chorus.

There was great synergy between stage and pit. Scammell, who has built her career on stage shows, coordinated the masses with finely honed intuition. The WA Symphony Orchestra added spice to Lehar’s folk melodies, hazy romanticism to the instrumental solos and effortless lift to the dance numbers.

We rarely get operettas at WA Opera and the audience (younger than a usual opening night crowd) were captivated by the young, versatile cast and effervescent, truly beautiful production. Notwithstanding a few opening night jitters, this was an impressive launch for Murphy’s The Merry Widow. There’s still so much more to describe but instead go buy a ticket for your night out of the year; it doesn’t get much more fun than this!

Dancers during the Act 3 party

WA Opera’s The Merry Widow continues in Perth until 22nd July with an Opera Melbourne season in November and Opera Australia in December.

This review first published Limelight Magazine.