At the Paris Universal Exhibition at the turn of the twentieth century, where it was said Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music, near everything newly discovered or newly made could be found. The Eiffel Tower, now synonymous with Paris, for one; the world-encompassing scale of the Galerie des machines where visitors could delight in discovering such things as atmospheric hammers, cigarette makers, phonographs, and telephones. Add to this a colonial exhibition of the ‘other’ from across land and sea masses; the Imperial, the largest diamond in the world; and a giant wooden and stucco elephant, which was later purchased and placed alongside an infamous red windmill, the Moulin Rouge, to render complete the Jardin de Paris Elephant. For a franc, a gentleman could enter the elephant’s body, by way of a staircase twisting up one of its legs, and find themselves in an opium den and a froth of belly dancers.
Paris: the city of entertainment. “Paris was where the twentieth century was…. Paris was the place to be,” said Gertrude Stein of that beautiful era, la Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and Degas. Bonnard, Cézanne, and Monet. Well may I cry, pour me another cocktail of Post-Impressionism, les Nabis, and ornamental Art Nouveau, but what of all this and a widow, merry or otherwise? This doorway to the past was, for me, what coloured and illuminated “The Merry Widow.” It was the backdrop to the foreground and the foreground to the backdrop, the very balance of the composition, the lightness of step, its undeterred waltzing heart. The elephant in the garden: frivolity and amusement.
From the palette of the Fauvist “wild beasts,” Matisse et al., to that found inside the belly of the beast, colour radiated mood, and it needn’t be true to the natural world. The emotional state was the heat rubbed into the canvas, into life, and on the stage in Robert Helpmann’s “The Merry Widow,” originally created for the Australian Ballet in 1975, and felt last night at the State Theatre from a seat in the stalls. Colour as a vehicle for describing the lustre and space of the city of light, itself. Colour to describe high and low art brushing shoulders.
To lean on the words of Stein and take them as my own, Tuesday night’s production of “The Merry Widow” was the place to be. Based on the operetta by Victor Léon and Leo Stein, with music by Franz Lehár arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, with scenario by Robert Helpmann and choreography by Ronald Hynd, I was transported to 1905. Or rather, I was transported to how I imagined 1905 to be though the portal of art and literature and fashion advertorials. I was for one glorious evening invited to dance my way through paintings I know and love. Permitted, nay, encouraged, to sink my toes into bold colour pigments and feel yellows and reds travel up my limbs and irradiate my core. “The Merry Widow” was pure escapism as pure escapism. It was as weightless and incandescent as it shone; light, bright, and all the better to view an absinthe coloured, S-bend corseted gown, my dear, as one downed glass after glass at Chez Maxime.
With its countless lifts and back arches, arms curved languid in euphoria, the choreography at times made glorious chandeliers of its female cast. Raised up to the ceiling, they appeared to hover in the air, encased in a swirl of too-much, in costumes by Desmond Heeley. Having myself only just returned from Paris the day prior, the buoyancy coupled with the temporal and spatial displacement of travel proved a well-timed, potent cocktail. Where the ballet ended and I began was concealed by lace, velvet vests, and a swan cloak to upstage all cloaks.
It made baubles of the cast, in the best possible sense, as legs were kicked high in merriment or flexed and pointed in playful accusation at the object of one’s ultimate affection. Legs were raised in the air, in can-can titillation, exemplified by Nicola Curry, Valerie Tereshchenko, and Karen Nanasca. And suited legs were raised in the air and called to mind a band of uniformed allumeurs who lit the constellation of gaslights throughout the city, thereby extending playtime for Parisians. Suited legs also whipped back and forth like ribbons of new electric light to illuminate places of note and revelry, as typified by Callum Linnane, Brodie James, and Marcus Morelli. Just as colour in a painting can convey mood, costuming and movement within “The Merry Widow” was there to be heard and read, with every swoosh of proud posturing and swinging hips in one big flirtation. Clack your fan and say Oui!
I, for one, couldn’t take my eyes off Dana Stephensen’s effervescent Valencienne and Andrew Wright’s arm-kissing à la Pepé Le Pew Camille. Their playfulness was as infectious as the melody of their pas de deux, and the woman seated before me bobbed her head from side to side throughout as if in agreement. Luke Marchant’s Maitre d’ and Colin Peasley’s Baron Mirko Zeta brought the precise amount of wobbly-drinks-on-a-tray humour and cuckolded poignancy mixed with rose-hued c’est la vie; a gloriously ridiculous Ingrid Gow too, delivered exacting portions of ham and silliness.
But of course the night truly belonged to Amy Harris as the feather-light, exuberant widow, Hanna Glawari, and Brett Simon, her bubble-bright Count Danilo, as she tied her peach handkerchief, his keepsake, around his neck in reminder, and their tender, swirling, magnetic finale to eclipse all the twinkling lustre of Chez Maxime. With Simon’s hand cupping the back of her neck as they spun, “The Merry Widow” was moving in its delicacy, and together their feet no longer touched the floor. Mine neither.
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