After 21 Years, Mireille Hassenboehler Is Bowing Out in Style

Houston Ballet's first full-length production of the new season is Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow, a charming, sweet delight of a narrative about young love reawakened in maturity. Last Thursday's opening-night performance saw Principal Dancer Mireille Hassenboehler in the lead role; her run as Hanna Glawari marks her final bows before her retirement from the company after a 21-year career.

There are some epicureans who like their drinks stiff, without the slightest hint of sugary zest, so a glass of champagne might be out of the question for such lovers of bitter spirits. Similarly, there are those dance enthusiasts who prefer their ballets to be steeped in high-minded tragedy without a trace of good-natured silliness. The Merry Widow is the equivalent of a glass of tasty bubbles, but for those who have reservations about its light sensibilities, I say it's their loss.

Newcomers to the narrative might want to grab a pen and paper first. The ballet is fun and frisky, yes, but Widow, based on the popular operetta by Franz Lehár, is one of those story ballets that require a bit of assistance from the program notes. Hanna Glawari is a wealthy widow from the fictitious country of Pontevedro. The nation's aristocracy largely resides in Paris, and it is there that they ponder their homeland's dire financial crisis. The Pontevedrian expat community needs Hanna to marry a fellow countryman to keep her fortune away from foreign hands, so they choose the affable yet perpetually tipsy Count Danilo for the job. All bets are off, though, when Hanna and Danilo meet and the two realize they have more in common than their beloved motherland of Pontevedro.

But really, a first-timer to The Merry Widow doesn't have to keep tabs on the financial and political backdrop that reunites Hanna and Danilo to enjoy this spread of earthly delights. Much of Widow's appeal comes from Hynd's piquant, joyous choreography and Lehár's whimsical, fancy-free music. In the pivotal scenes, the central figures are enveloped by a whirling ensemble that is so grand, and so enjoyable to watch, it might as well be a character in itself.

Just take the ballroom scene in Act I, for example, which sees a never-ending cycle of gorgeous waltz steps and handsome configurations that fill the stage with ornate costume work by Roberta Guidi de Bagno. Her set designs also play a big role in re-creating early 20-century Parisian lavishness, but without excess or fussiness. The grand staircase is flanked by giant looming statuary that supports the luminaries that light the ball, but ample space is made for all that sublime waltz work.

Like all fashionable hostesses, Hanna has the ability to entertain en masse. The garden scene in Act II also showcases some mighty fine group work in the form of the Pontevedrian folk dances performed in honor of the soiree. Of course, these folk dances take their inspiration from ballet's pantheon of character dance, but they're still a sight to see. Guidi de Bagno's costuming hits a high point here as well with her fuchsia creations that draw from Eastern European traditions.

Then there is that stunning lead performance by Hassenboehler, who creates a heroine who is as powerful as she is fragile. In an early flashback scene, she dances the young Hanna with heartbreaking sincerity; as an older woman who has experienced the pain of jilted love, she plays her character in minute detail rather than broad strokes. As a result, the audience is privy to every sharp-witted maneuver of Hanna's rich psychology. She's not a girl to be pitied, but a woman to behold and cherish.

Her leading man, Count Danilo, was danced on opening night by Linnar Looris with excellent perceptive powers. Danilo is one of those characters that might be played flat, allowing the female counterpart to do most of the emotional heavy lifting, but Looris creates a multilayered hero who is just as empathetic as Hanna. His solo work was meditative and full of mournful attitude turns, every long-limbed extension a gesture of remorse for having turned his back on the one person he ever truly loved. When he lifts Hanna, it's with a tenderness that registers more like a gesture of affection than a technical skill of strength.

Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite provided wonderful comedic antics and integral subplot in their roles of Camille and Valencienne. The lovers are in a bit of a pickle of their own, as Valencienne is the Ambassador's wife. The pair is here to complicate the drama between Hanna and Danilo, but they have their fair share of memorable moments, including Camille's lust and overeager hands that always happen to find themselves in the wrong spot.

The action comes to a head in Act III, which sees the financially doomed Pontevedrians going out in style at Chez Maxim, a gaudy, overly posh nightclub. There's even a fun can-can dance — and plenty of champagne — for good measure. All silliness is cast aside when Hassenboehler enters the party; it's in her poignant duet with Looris and the accompanying trio of Walsh, Mennite and Christopher Coomer as the Ambassador that the audience realizes that this is serious business.

Danilo serenades Hanna while Valencienne vacillates between the man of her desires and the man she gave herself to in matrimony. In an iconic moment, the two pairs of lovers mirror each other with the women pressed up fully into the air. The couples revolve around each other with Hanna and Valencienne interlocking arms. The Ambassador looks on in longing, perhaps wishing he were a younger man, but despite his rightful claims, he allows his wife the companionship of her lover. It's a heartbreaking image, but it comes from one of experience, as a man his age knows all too well what every character onstage and every member of the audience understands: The heart wants what the heart wants.

The Merry Widow is a light confection with plenty of heart and even more comic mischief. But the ballet isn't a screwball of caricature and cheap frills. Hassenboehler's rendering of the complex Hanna and Linnar Looris's nuanced realization of the contemplative Danilo give the narrative an emotional weight that makes the ballet fully edifying. Lovely dancing, heartfelt partnering and enchanting design work — now that's a champagne toast I can raise my glass to.

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Adam Castaneda
Contact: Adam Castaneda