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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE MERRY WIDOW (article first published : 2000-03-8)

The publicity for the State Theatre Ballet’s production of The Merry Widow promised a stunningly visual production and this was no lame boast. The sets and costumes are simply superb and, thanks to the special storage instructions laid down by American designer Desmond Heeley, STB (formerly PACT Ballet) have kept the costumes and set looking as crisp and new as they would have done first time round. This happened all of seven years ago when the ballet was first performed in South Africa at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre in 1993. Since then, the company has performed The Merry Widow four times and the production shows no signs of flagging.

STB is a fine, well-disciplined ballet company and its principal dancers are top class. STB’s Ballerina Tanja Graafland is grace and elegance itself as Hanna Glawari, the wealthy Pontevedrian widow on whose choice of husband lies the future of the country for if she is to marry a foreigner, her wealth will be lost to Pontevedria.

Frantically trying to find her a suitable mate are the Ambassador Baron Zeta (a suitably doddery Manuel Noram) and his secretary Njegus (played with much humour by Nigel Hannah). They decide the best man available is the first secretary, Count Danilo (Iain MacDonald) who at first introduction appears to be far more concerned with the contents of several wine bottles!

Tall and imposing, Iain MacDonald makes an impressive Danilo and there is a particularly amusing sequence in the first scene when he is flamboyantly drunk. Iain MacDonald joined Durban’s Fantastic Flying Fish on their recent tour of Taiwan.

Adding to the main story line is the adoring relationship between Baron Zeta’s youthful wife Valencienne (a coquettish and charming Burnise Silvius) and Camille, well performed by Andries Weidermann. Durban audiences will remember him from his appearances in Coppelia and The Nutcracker.

The ballet opens to an impressively lavish backdrop but it is when the curtain rises on Scene 2 set in the Pontevedrian Embassy that the audience gasps in admiration. With palm trees, mirrored pillars and just the right amount of lighting aided by fairy light chandeliers it was exquisitely beautiful. The women were all in white with Edwardian styled ruffles adorned with roses, their costumes a stark contrast to Hanna’s dramatic black gown with its underskirt of scattered sequins. The men’s jackets were just as impressive with dramatic design features.

Against this backdrop Graffland and MacDonald perform a languorous and tender duet to the time-honoured melody Vilia, creating soaring moments which turn into a whirling rush of passion.

The third and fourth scenes were just as visually impressive although I found the Maxim’s ornate set with its opulent splendour a little too busy, often distracting from the dancers who were in equally resplendent costumes. Special mention must be made of a delightfully camp interpretation of the Maître d’Chez Maxim by Timothy Podesta, who also appeared in Durban over the last festive season in The Nutcracker. In passing, it is interesting to note another Durban connection as Andrew Warburton is now the STB’s pianist and music co-ordinator.

The pas de quatre with Graafland, MacDonald, Silvius and Weidermann was another highlight as all four lovers eventually come to terms with their feelings. During this time, Baron Zeta comes on the scene and realises that his wife’s affections are very definitely given to Camille. The three of them go off arm in arm – whether they come to an amicable solution, is left to the audience to guess!

Set to Franz Lehár’s classic story with musical adaptation by John Lanchbery and choreography by Ronald Hynd, this is a must for all lovers of dance. There are two casts of principals alternating in the leading roles of Hanna and Count Danilo (see events diary for details). The supporting roles of Valencienne and Camille will be shared by Burnise Silvius and Andries Weidemann, Anya Carstens and Christian Tatchev, and Kim Vieira and Kaloyan Boyadjiev. Booking is at Computicket.

”The Merry Widow” moves to the Opera House, Spoornet State Theatre in Pretoria for a run in May before heading for Grahamstown in July where there will be two performances at the Monument Theatre during the 2000 Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts. Tanja Graafland and Iain MacDonald will again perform the leading roles.




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