The National Ballet of Canada/The Merry Widow, choreographed by Ronald Hynd, scenario by Sir Robert Helpmann, music by Franz Lehar, adapted by John Lanchbery, Four Seasons Centre, June 19 to 23. Tickets available at national.ballet.ca
Xiao Nan Yu is ending her glittering twenty-two-year career with the National Ballet in the manner she so richly deserves. Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow is glitzy, glamorous and unabashedly romantic, and the role of Hanna Glawari is one that has always shown off the retiring ballerina in all her greatness.
Choreographer Hynd and scenarist Helpmann kept closely to the storyline of the much-beloved Lehar operetta when they created the work for Australian Ballet in 1975. Gilding the lily is the brilliant musical adaptation of John Lanchbery, which includes all of the composer’s lilting, schmaltzy melodies. Add in Desmond Heeley’s opulent sets and costumes, and you have a light-hearted ballet swathed in champagne bubbles and belle époque allure. When the legendary Margot Fonteyn picked up the role of Hanna in 1976, it began the trend of The Merry Widow becoming a showcase for a parade of great dance artists like Yu.
While the overall ethos of the ballet may be frothy and carefree, the role of Hanna has its serious moments and requires great acting skills. Hanna was once spurned by Count Danilo (Guillaume Côté) for being beneath his station, but now that she is the richest widow in Pontevedro, all his old feelings come percolating to the surface. Yu is masterful in telescoping Hanna’s every thought and feeling, particularly her push/pull relationship with Danilo. In terms of dancing, she has always been a towering presence on stage, even with the most fragile of characters. Her crispness in attack, her military-precision placement, and her total body control rivets the eye. In Yu’s magnificent portrayal, Hanna becomes a living, breathing person, making her farewell performance a must see.
British-born Hynd may not be in the top flight of storyteller choreographers, but his The Merry Widow does stand the test of time. Hynd doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of movement; rather, he uses the wheel that he knows to best advantage. In his years as a dancer with Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet, he absorbed all the British/Russian classical traditions, which are in full force in The Merry Widow, particularly for the men. Côté, from his very first entrance, executes all manner of virtuosity with aplomb. He matches Yu in his bona fide charisma and intense athleticism. The chemistry between the two is palpable, and as this is a ballet of girl loses guy/girl gets guy, the romance is everything. (And note: Hynd, now a stately eighty-eight, was on hand to take an opening night bow.)
The secondary couple, as in the operetta, is comprised of Valencienne (Jillian Vanstone), the young wife of the ageing Baron Zeta (Jonathan Renna), the Pontevedrian ambassador to France, and Camille de Rosillon (Naoya Ebe), the embassy’s French attaché. Their flirtation is serious business, and to these lovers falls the most romantic, lyrical pas de deux in the whole ballet, which Vanstone and Ebe perform to perfection. Vanstone, a company icon of grace, has always understood character, and both her dancing and acting skills are on vivid display in The Merry Widow. Ebe is a fine classicist, but his character portrayals have tended towards the underwhelming side of things, but, mirabile dictu, this excellent dancer has found his acting chops as Camille, which makes the second act pas de deux, as well as the lovers’ relationship throughout, so believable.
Renna’s performance deserves a shout-out. His Baron Zeta avoids being a total buffoon, while showing genuine heartbreak when he finds out about his wife’s love affair with Camille. It is, perhaps, the most affecting moment in the ballet. The most virtuosic divertissement is performed by Kota Sato as the lead Pontevedrian dancer, and his whiz kid technique is right up there with Russian classical pyrotechnics. Clearly, corps member Sato is heading towards a noteworthy career. Etienne Lavigne does a restrained job as the worried Njegus, the ambassador’s secretary, without being a total fuss-budget, Christopher Gerty and Brendan Saye pull off showy dances as embassy undersecretaries, while Hanna Fischer and Kathryn Hosier are the obligatory winsome and graceful Pontevedrian ladies. Tomas Schramek, Rebekah Rimsay and Tirion Law add colourful cameos to the third act setting at Maxim’s as maître d’, enraged client, and the client’s friend, respectively.
Pontevedro is presumably somewhere in Eastern Europe, so Lehar included appropriate music in the score. Hynd’s attractive choreography abounds in eye-catching folk dance/national dance idioms such as mazurka, polka, czardas, and Ukrainian hopak gymnastics, with a stately polonaise thrown in for good measure. Lehar, who composed the operetta in 1905, also included social dances of the time like the cakewalk and the always popular waltz, which Hynd has faithfully recreated. The famous “Merry Widow Waltz”, of course, underscores the primary pas de deux for Hanna and Danilo. And of course, there is the requisite cancan at Maxim’s. The first time I saw The Merry Widow when the National first brought the ballet into the repertoire in 1986, I was disappointed in Hynd’s cancan which I thought anemic, but I think I finally get it. Instead of just giving the cancan to the grisettes, he includes the male corps de ballet as well, and when viewed as an ensemble piece, it works. All told, The Merry Widow is a what’s-not-to-like ballet.
It’s been a decade since The Merry Widow was last performed, and with so many of the National dancers being relatively new, many performances are debuts. The good news is that the company embraces the spirit of the fun with gusto, matched by the empathetic playing of the ballet orchestra under maestro David Briskin. No one is better than Briskin at milking every melodramatic aspect of the score, which is so necessary for high romance. In truth, everyone in the company, both onstage and in the pit, is pulling out all the stops to ensure the creation of the vibrant performance that is the backdrop for Yu’s fond farewell.
You will be missed, Nan (as she is known). Thank you for twenty-two years of pure dance pleasure.