Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
70 years after Franz Lehar’s beloved operetta debuted in 1905, Ronald Hynd
transformed the popular gem into an energetic ballet. Now, 36 years
later, the 80-year-old choreographer has brought this polyglot
divertissement to Chicago in a sumptuous, two-hour fantasy that takes
the Joffrey Ballet into wonderful new waters.
Though the original vaudevillian and rhapsodic tunes get mixed up
among the three acts and the subplot involving an incriminating fan has
been mercifully dropped, the story mirrors the original in all that
matters. Cultural contrast was always the fuel for the fun. Here it’s
the fact that the Pontevedran embassy
in Paris needs to hold onto the fortune of the title character, if only
to preserve its quaint customs and Balkan folk dances in the midst of
the world’s most cosmopolitan center.
Three styles keep both operetta and ballet fascinating throughout.
The Embassy ball in the first act harks back to the classic waltzes of
Vienna. The Second, set in the villa of the fabulously wealthy Hannah
Glawari, delights in pseudo-Pontevedran Polonaises and ethnic novelty
numbers. Finally, Lehar drenches the third act in French frivolity as
the action moves to Maxim’s, with its can-can grizettes and dapper
Parisian dandies straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec.
Since this is ballet, the story, compressed and created by Sir Robert Helpmann,
is second to the steps. Unlike the operetta, there’s never any doubt
that Hanna will return to her rakish former lover, Count Danilo. (We
don’t need to burden our pretty little heads with silly doubts.) There’s
little more suspense over the illicit courtship between Valencienne,
the Ambassador’s flirtatious French wife, and the handsome French
attaché Camille de Rousillon, a nightingale indeed.
The duets between these couples echo the musical styles. Victoria Jaiani’s Hana and Miguel Angel Blanco’s
Danilo turn the first act waltzes into surprisingly vertical affairs,
with lifts that defy the horizontal swirl of the sweeping melodies.
Likewise, Yumelia Garcia’s capricious Valencienne, with her sensuous twirls and bodice-bending dips, finds a perfect partner in Graham Maverick’s quicksiliver, gravity-defying Rousillon. Both blend in beautifully with the galloping gaiety of Maxim’s in full fluorescence.
Hynd has given the ensemble glorious moments, whether as gallant
members of the Pontevedran entourage or hellbent, high-kicking,
skirt-tossing soubrettes making plays for the gentry. They’re impeccably
costumed by Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno,
while the stenciled facades and imitation marble pillars of the first
act, wisteria-laden garden of the second, and monumental cabaret setting
of the third act, are also the gorgeous work of the exquisitely
talented Di Bagno.
It lasts no longer than it should, since a fantasy should never be
pushed beyond its initial allure. As the English say, you should never
let daylight shine on magic.
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