We are off to see the ballet version of The Merry Widow tonight. Over the years, as I’ve learnt more and more about history (and read ninety million historical fiction books!), I’ve come to appreciate the ballet in different ways. For example, the way the “widow” character appears in the first act entirely in black, and gradually emerges from her mourning as the story continues over three acts.
In many ways, The Merry Widow is the ultimate historical romance, with an excellent secondary romance to boot (I’ve included the synopsis below).
I first saw this ballet in the early Nineties, at the final dress rehearsal in Canberra the day before the opening night of the production’s revival. They used original costumes, and backstage I got to touch the costumes worn by Dame Margot Fonteyn (considered one of the greatest ballerinas in world history) when she played the lead role.
I’ve seen numerous casts over the years, but I’d like to share a scene from the 1990s recording. The music, the pas de deux, the costumes, the sets… it’s all so gorgeous. I don’t see the same level of passion and beauty and grace in ballet often these days; this version, starring Lisa Pavane (who was one of my favourite ballet teachers, and now runs The Australian Ballet School) and Steven Heathcote (who I worked with a number of times over the years) is just gorgeous.
Synopsis: The action takes place in Paris in the year 1905.
Scene 1: An ante-room in the Pontevedrian Embassy
Minor officials and the French Attaché (Camille de Rosillon) are finishing work prior to the ball to be given in the Embassy that evening. The Ambassador’s secretary (Njegus) enters with a fresh heap of bills and all lament their country’s bankruptcy.
The Ambassador (Baron Zeta) and his young French wife (Valencienne) enter with a telegram announcing that a recently widowed Pontevedrian (Hanna Glawari) is to attend the ball. She is worth 20 million francs and seeks a new husband. However, should she marry a foreigner, Pontevedro will lose the benefit of her wealth and the country will be left penniless. The First Secretary (Count Danilo) is considered a prospective suitor.
Camille and Valencienne are left alone. He is passionately in love with her, and she with him, but she clings to her marriage vows. Njegus interrupts the lovers and they leave as Danilo enters – more than a little intoxicated. Njegus informs him of the marriage plan. He is amused at the suggestion and lapses into an alcoholic slumber. The Baron returns and orders Njegus to ensure that Danilo is sober before the ball begins.
Scene 2: The ballroom in the Pontevedrian Embassy Hanna Glawari arrives and Danilo is presented to her. They are dumbfounded, having met when she was a peasant girl in Pontevedro ten years ago. Danilo had put an end to the affair at the insistence of his aristocratic parents. He is amazed at the transformation of Hanna and, in his confusion, mops his forehead with a handkerchief which Hanna recognises as a keepsake she gave him when they parted. He tells Hanna that he has always loved her, but she, thinking that he is only interested in her money, rejects him.
The Baron bids Hanna choose a partner for the dance. Hanna regrets her coldness and chooses Danilo, but he, still smarting, refuses, and waltzes with another guest.
Valencienne urges Camille to prevent a ‘situation’. Hanna accepts his arm and they dance together. In the course of changing partners, Hanna finds herself alone with Danilo. She continues to resist his attentions but cannot really disguise her love for him.
Scene: The garden of Hanna’s villa
Hanna is holding a Pontevedrian soiree at her villa and the guests celebrate with their national dances. As they all go into supper, Zeta, Danilo, and Njegus agree to meet at eight o’clock in the pavilion for a small diplomatic discussion on Danilo’s progress with Hanna. All is going well and they are growing closer to each other, despite a slight mutual distrust.
Valencienne and Camille sneak into the deserted garden and as she finally succumbs to his persuasive passion, they withdraw into the darkness of the pavilion – observed, however, by Njegus. As the Baron and Danilo approach, Njegus panics and locks the pavilion door. Looking through the keyhole, the Baron sees all. In the ensuing scuffle to wrest the key from Njegus, Hanna appears and realises the situation. She releases Valencienne through a side door and takes her place inside.
The Baron unlocks the door and orders the guilty couple to emerge. To his amazement, Camille comes out with Hanna, who dumbfounds everyone by announcing their engagement. The astounded guests offer frigid congratulations and depart. Danilo is the last to leave and, in a frenzy, throws at her feet the handkerchief with which she had, a moment ago, retied their union. She picks it up knowing that he truly loves her.
Scene: Chez Maxime
The Pontevedrians have come to drown their sorrows and spend their last francs at Chez Maxime. Gaiety prevails until Camille unwisely appears – hoping, of course, to meet Valencienne. The Pontevedrians, led by Valencienne, jeer at him. Her mockery, however, is more emotional than patriotic.
Hanna suddenly appears and accepts Camille’s unwillingly offered arm. This is too much for Danilo who advances to challenge him to a duel, but Hanna and Valencienne intervene. The Baron perceives, from his wife’s protection of Camille, that his fears are not without foundation and resignedly accepts the inevitable.
All have left and Hanna stands forlornly alone. Danilo quietly returns and folds her into a loving embrace that turns into an ecstatic waltz.