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"The Merry Widow" by Ronald Hynd

by Lori Ortiz
June 30, 2008
Lincoln Center
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American Ballet Theatre
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The Metropolitan Opera House
It's a romantic musical chairs when Xiomara Reyes dances Valencienne, wife of the aging, ailing Pontevedrian Baron Zeta, Victor Barbee. In real life he is married to Julie Kent, who dances the title role, Hanna Glawari, a wealthy Pontevedrian widow looking for a husband. Hanna is introduced to Danilo Danilovitch, a picture perfect Jose Manuel Carreño. He was the first Danilo in the ABT "The Merry Widow" eleven years ago. Ronald Hynd made it, with Robert Helpman's assistance, for the Australian Ballet in 1975. John Meehan created Danilo, then. A few years later he joined ABT and stayed for more than thirty years.

Hanna has mixed feelings about Danilo's intentions. It's not an easy role— mourning and mistrust combined with love and desire. Julie Kent portrayed mixed emotions opening night June 30th at the Met. She easily morphs into Danilo's vision of another long ago attraction they had for each other when she was a mere peasant girl. Kent is still sweet as a thirty-something. Thankfully, she updates preconceived notions of 'widow,' though at times, in the first and second act, her steps are hesitant and seemingly constricted by her long black mourning frock.

Danilo gets drunk and throws his empty glasses into the wings. The Baron's fondness for libation is somewhat controlled by his wife, when she's not swooning over the French attaché, Camille de Rosillon (Gennadi Saveliev). The clatter of broken glass becomes a recurring motif, as well as the drink and gaiety that temporarily release them from their impending economic and political collapse. This is about escapism. The uplifting story is told with gesture, mime, and varied balletic waltzes invented by Hynd to illuminate the time and place: an embassy ball, a garden party in the fictional Balkan state, and a famous Parisian watering hole. As seen from row L, all this is accomplished without the plastered on smiles that can make a ballet look false.

Drunkenness is often the source of the comedy– the bumbling men (Carreño could be more so) and the efforts of the others to get on with the twists of plot. The women are high, swept into the arms of their lovers in dips to the floor and soaring lifts— to the rollercoaster Franz Lehár operetta music, orchestrated by John Lanchbery. Ormsby Wilkins conducts the ABT Orchestra's performance, which revealed burdens as well as fin de siècle frill. Especially notable is a whooping horn that accompanies the upswing of a lift. This is one instance where the music sounds more satirical than lyrical. Love, music, and dancing triumph. This audience, in blissful gratitude, gave a standing ovation Monday, June 30th, opening night.

Xiomara Reyes is the life of the ballet. As the Baron's wife she's ripe for adventure and perhaps longing for French fellowship, Reyes's Valencienne opens up 100% and beautifully dances, as all-too-human, the thrill of forbidden love. Her legs spread while she's swirled around Saveliev. She does a series of soars above as he turns her and then bounces her into splits on the floor.

Inventive 'folk dancing' in Act II, in Hanna's garden, is a memorable highlight. She gestures an invitation to the guests: septets of women and men. Kent is strong here. Joseph Phillips leads the men impressively; he bends over backwards while spiraling in the air, around the small group. Danilo wears white balloon pants with a black pattern along the outsides. They inflate his thighs in multiple pirouettes. Kent's initiation of their variation on the Pontevedrian dances looks tentative at first. Her feet are the focus as she flexes and points them. Carreño follows suit, and it begins to make sense. Their flip-flopping feet express the duel nature of their feeling toward each other.

Act III allows for abandon and Kent glistens in a white gown and tiara in featherweight waltzes with Danilo. There, in Maxim's, with equal panache, six ladies can-can on pointe.

The ballet was adapted from a 1907 operetta. Its opulence and Parisian gaiety was enjoyed at the turn of the century. Lehár's buoyant waltzes and the dancing are the high points, so it's adaptation for ballet is no surprise.

The ornate scenery by Desmond Heeley portrays the glamor and exoticism of 1905, for example, its profusion of curiosity about other cultures. ABT grandly carries on the tradition with freshness, humor, and relevance. The evening flies by. It's a spirit lifter.
Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño in The Merry Widow.

Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño in The Merry Widow.

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone

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