Fizzy as champagne. That’s the Joffrey Ballet’s new beautifully presented evening-length production of The Merry Widow.
This Midwest premiere is English choreographer
Ronald Hynd’s 1975 dance version of
Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta of the same name. The original score was adapted by
John Lanchbery, so fans of the operetta will have fun identifying familiar melodies in unfamiliar places.
The setting is turn of the 20th-century Paris, in the Pontevedrian embassy. The fictional country is having money problems, and one suggested solution is for First Secretary Count Danilo to marry Hanna Glawari, aka the Merry Widow. If this wealthy woman marries a Pontevedrian, her fortune will keep the country afloat. The course of story ballets never does run smooth, however, and it takes three acts in four lovely settings to get to the happy ending.
Hynd takes every advantage of the opportunities for humor in the light-hearted story, and his choreography is inventive, funny, poignant, and nicely tailored to the delightful music. The little bits of pantomime he creates are crystal clear, and when you see someone circling hands over head, it’s the traditional ballet way to say, “Let’s dance!” The Joffrey performers are equal to all the dancing and acting challenges Hynd provides.
We get just a sip of Lehar’s bubbly music from the Chicago Sinfonietta before the curtain rises on the first of four beautiful sets by Roberta Guidi de Bagno, who also designed the costumes. The men’s costumes are especially attractive and flattering in Acts One and Three, and they give the production a sense of elegance and luxury. The women’s costumes, while often glittery, seem strangely unimpressive.
In Scene One, Joffrey ballet master Willy Shives appealingly plays Njegus, the dedicated aide who tries to get someone to pay attention to the country’s unpaid bills. (We are suppressing political commentary here.) Paper pushing is graphically and amusingly demonstrated.
Aaron Rogers and Lucas Segovia are nicely paired in featured roles as embassy officials. Their fine dancing is characterized by crisp, precise movements and light jumps.
Matthew Adamczyk sympathetically plays the aged Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrian ambassador, whose flirty wife ( Yumelia Garcia) is secretly carrying on with the handsome French attaché (Graham Maverick). The lovers’ romance is always passionate, usually lovingly so but there’s also a little choking involved.
Finally, Miguel Angel Blanco as Count Danilo, the unsuspecting prospective suitor for the widow’s hand, enters in an amusingly inebriated state. Over the course of the evening, Blanco convincingly plays all aspects of his character, from sot to wounded lover and dashing romantic hero, and he is by turns funny and touching. He can drape his long limbs in a humorous way, do a mean cancan, or create an elegant line. His lovely, smooth pirouettes end in a perfectly placed tour en l’air.
Scene Two is set in a majestic ballroom where the company dances the swirling waltzes we’ve been awaiting, the women’s fans forming part of the design in one section. Lehar’s lovely melodies, including Vilia and the Merry Widow Waltz, are put to effective use.
Victoria Jaiani, as Hanna, the Merry Widow, makes quite an entrance, dressed in sparkling black, coming down the impressive, if shaky, grand staircase. Jaiani’s willowy body is well suited to her character and to Blanco’s height and long limbs. She's lovely but doesn’t seem particularly merry; she's more mysterious and reserved.
When Hanna and Count Danilo meet, the characters do something rarely done and in this case highly effective: they stand still as the music flows by. Each is shocked to recognize the other from a past unhappy romance—when Hanna was, of course, a peasant girl. When the flustered Count Danilo pulls out a very large red “handkerchief,” Hanna recognizes it as the one she gave him long ago.
Choreographer Hynd creates an intriguing “flashback” sequence, in which Danilo remembers the moment when the peasant girl Hanna gave him the handkerchief. The memory ends as both the remembered Hanna and the wealthy Merry Widow are on stage.
The romantic garden of Hanna’s villa in Act Two is the setting for plot complications, a nice solo for Willy Shives, and some Pontevedrian folk dances with interesting patterns, fun jumping steps, and a strong leader in Derrick Agnoletti.
There’s also some unusual choreography for the leads. Jaiani unfolds her leg high in the air, with a flexed foot, which she then points at Blanco. Blanco has jumps with flexed feet, he turns on his heels, and he and Jaiani reverse the usual male/female roles in an interesting way: Blanco is the one to slowly pivot in place in arabesque while Jaiani is the one who walks around him, flicking him with the red hanky.
The delightful set for the Act Three shows Chez Maxim, the famous Parisian restaurant, complete with a view of the distant Eiffel Tower. Derrick Agnoletti, looking like something out of a Toulouse Lautrec painting, is the harried maitre d’. The men’s corps looks spectacular in their tailcoats and top hats. The cancan is oddly disappointing, especially after all of Hynd’s inventiveness. Perhaps he was trying to avoid doing the stereotypical kicks, but that’s what we expect from the cancan. The costumes don’t help: the non-cancan diaphanous dresses are in shades of red and orange, with no ruffled petticoats. They looked odd.
On the other hand, Miguel Angel Blanco did some very nice high-kicking grand battements and ronds de jambe en l’air, those circles in the air with one leg, and the cancan dancers—and their partners—do the splits. Blanco and Yumelia Garcia, playing the Ambassador’s flirty wife, have a spectacular movement with Garcia going airborne.
The ballet has a bittersweet ending for the poor Ambassador, who must acknowledge his wife’s love for someone else. The restaurant empties, and Hanna is left alone onstage. In an unusually quiet ending for such a merry work, the ballet ends with the Count returning to Hanna for a final duet.
Present for the bows were choreographer Ronald Hynd, celebrating his 80th birthday; his wife, Annette Page; and John Meehan, repetiteur, coach, and the original Count Danilo from the 1975 production. All three helped to set the ballet on the Joffrey company. Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater says in the program notes, “The Merry Widow was the first ballet I danced upon joining the Australian Ballet, and I am delighted to bring this landmark work to the Chicago audience for the first time.” The audience is delighted as well.
Photographs by Herbert Migdoll
50 E. Congress Parkway
Performances Wednesday, February 16, 2011 to Sunday, February 27, 2011 as follows:
Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 pm;
Friday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 pm;
Saturday, Feb. 19 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm;
Sunday, Feb. 20 at 2 pm;
Thursday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 pm;
Friday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 pm;
Saturday, Feb. 26 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm;
Sunday, Feb. 27 at 2 pm.
Single ticket are priced between $24 and $145
Tickets are available at The Joffrey Ballet's official Box Office in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University box office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at (800) 982-2787, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.