‘Merry Widow’ revels in Old World opulence

February 18, 2011
REVIEW by Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


The Joffrey Ballet’s grand and glorious production of “The Merry Widow,” the full-length ballet by British choreographer Ronald Hynd now in a lavish company premiere at the Auditorium Theatre, might just inspire a little yearning for the rebirth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that sprawling, cosmopolitan, trans-European society that thrived from 1867 to 1918.

After all, with so much romance and opulent fashion, so many waltz-driven ballroom frolics and champagne toasts, and such seductive folkloric heritage existing alongside the most deliciously playful French cancan girls, who could worry about out-of-touch aristocrats, feckless bureaucrats or the bankruptcy threatening to undermine Pontevedra, a far-flung duchy whose Paris Embassy is a monument to overspending?

Inspired by Franz Lehar’s 1907 operetta, Hynd’s ballet is the very essence of grand, dance-driven storytelling, with the choreographer finding the most modern-minded shorthand of gestures and movement (as opposed to outdated mime) to delineate character and plot. Created for the Australian Ballet in 1975, “The Merry Widow” also ideally captures a bygone era. And John Lanchbery’s glossy “adaptation” of Lehar’s score (played beautifully by the Chicago Sinfonietta, under the direction of Scott Speck) only enhances the pleasure.

Two romantic entanglements anchor the story. The first concerns Count Danilo (Miguel Angel Blanco, whose fine dancing was matched by comic panache), a Pontevedrian diplomat who must marry wealthily to keep his country afloat, and Hanna (the exquisite Victoria Jaiani, equally adept at capturing an aching heart and sophisticated flirtation), the rich and beautiful widow with peasant roots he seduced and abandoned years earlier. The other story line concerns Baron Zeta (splendid comic work by Matthew Adamczyk), the elderly ambassador from Pontevedra whose spicy young wife, Valencienne (Yumelia Garcia, whose superb dancing is paired with delicious coquettishness), is having an affair with a young, handsome Frenchman (the dashing Graham Maverick).

Hanna, wary of being hurt again by Danilo, plays hard to get despite her enduring passion, and Hynd gives us a winning memory scene in which that youthful liaison is recalled. He also gives us a spectacular folk dance sequence, with an outstanding male ensemble led by the bravura Derrick Agnoletti.

The whole company is dancing superbly, with notable turns by Willy Shives, Jaime Hickey, Christine Rocas, Aaron Rogers, Lucas Segovia and the cancan girls.

Roberta Guidi Di Bagno’s sets are beyond gorgeous. So are her ravishing costumes, particularly a white egret feather shawl for Hanna.

Hynd, tall and dapper as he approaches 80, was on hand for opening-night bows, along with John Meehan, who has staged the ballet to perfection.