When it comes to dance, particularly ballet, I'm an admitted classicist. I prefer the tradition, pageantry and movement of ballets such as Cinderella and Giselle over more modern compositions. So while I had never before experienced The Merry Widow, the setup intrigued me. Paris. The turn of the 20th Century. A ball. Political intrigue. Unrequited love. Ladies in gowns and girls in can-can garb. This is good stuff.
At the outset of the Houston Ballet's production of The Merry Widow, we are transported to the ornate Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris (in case you are as clueless as I in European geography, Pontevedra is a city on the north-west side of the Iberian peninsula that held significant cultural wealth in the early 1900s). The French Attache, Camille de Rosillion, and his undersecretaries are lamenting the precarious state of their nation's economy just as they prepare for a ball that evening. A telegram arrives notifying the group that a recently widowed, wealth Pontevedrian named Hanna will attend the evening's festivities. We also learn in this first act that Valencienne, the young wife of the ailing French Ambassador Baron Zeta, is secretly in love with Camille.
With this set up, we are taken through three more scenes, including the elaborate ball, intrigue in a villa garden and a raucous interlude in an upscale French café. Lovers are won and lost and drama is at every turn. But it's the fantastic steps of the main dancers in this tale that carry the story. Houston Ballet Principal Sara Webb as Valencienne is endearing from the start and her fluid movement is mesmerizing. Show-stealer Amy Fote, who retired as a principal from the Houston Ballet in 2012, returns to play Hanna in the title role (note: casting may not be consistent for the duration of the production).
But again, I go back to staging and costumes. The over-the-top nature of this production is absorbing-from the ball scene with its giant candelabra-carrying statues grand staircase to the high-brow Chez Maxim complete with dapper waiters and those cheeky can-can girls.
The Merry Widow is certainly worth seeing, if you enjoy classical ballet and spectacle. Houston Ballet's production runs through Sept. 29 at the Wortham Center.