Fort Worth — If The Merry Widow got off to a slow start Friday night at Bass Hall, it made up for it in charm. Based on a paper-thin plot, Texas Ballet Theater’s production, in its North Texas premiere, provided so many delights that it would be churlish to complain.
From Ronald Hynd’s imaginative choreography and Franz Lehar’s delirious waltzes to Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s gorgeous sets and costumes, this three-act ballet was a feast to the eye and ear. How wonderful, too, to have the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra bring added vibrancy.
Like many stories that started out for the operetta stage, this one is simple but with many twists. A rich and young widow can save the French Pontevedrian embassy from financial ruin only if she is to marry a man from the same country. As it happens, our heroine Hanna Glawari (Carolyn Judson on Friday night; the roles rotate all weekend) was once in love with Count Davilo, whose aristocratic family nixes any serious relationship.
When they meet at the embassy’s ball, they recognize each other after ten years’ absence. But the Count (Carl Coomer) vacillates from love to pride: he worries that she will think he is after her money.
Chandeliers dangle from the ballroom ceiling and a staircase provides a dramatic entrance for the widow. Her black sequined ball gown sets her apart from the baron’s wife Valencienne in rose and the guests in flowing cream-colored gowns and white opera gloves. Every thick coiffure carried a tiara.
The subplot involves the illicit love affair between the Baron’s wife Valencienne (Leticia Oliveira) and the French Attaché Camille de Rosillion (Jiyan Dai).
Despite its operatic background, The Merry Widow cries out for a ballet version. All that waltzing! And the dancers offer everything that is heady and graceful to this dance form. They glide and spin, dip and swirl, pivot and fan out with the ease of floating clouds. They seemed propelled by the intoxication of the music in an ever-growing rush, faster and faster.
The movement more than rivals anything you would see in competitive ballroom dancing—it’s more exaggerated, more full of flow and energy, and more spatially complex. Rows of dancers form diagonal lines that segue into circles, and the horizontal plane turns into vertical lifts. There are lifts after lifts after lifts. As couples move counterclockwise, the men gracefully lift their partners skyward and just as seamlessly return them to the ground. The greatest and most romantic lifts are those between the two leading couples: the widow and Count, and Valencienne and the Attaché.
They are luxurious and ecstatic, as when Mr. Coomer lifts Ms. Judson and spins her again and again, her arms and legs like pinwheels, or when he carries her aloft with her back arched in a dramatic swoon.
It takes a ballroom scene, a villa’s garden party, and a feast at Chez Maxim for the widow and Count to finally get over all their misgivings about each other and declare their love. By now, Chez Maxim is empty, lit by a moonlit glow, and the two simply stand close together, their eyes saying everything. Very slowly, the widow tilts backward; the Count touches her and they embark on one of the more romantic duets any ballet has ever offered.
You could not ask for a more fitting valentine.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.