Mireille Hassenboehler Waltzes The Merry Widow

The Setup: Houston Ballet's first full-length ballet of the new season is Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow, a charming, sweet delight of a narrative about young love reawakened in maturity. Opening night 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 twenty-one year career.

The Execution: For all its fun and friskiness, The Merry Widow, based on the popular operetta by Franz Lahár, is one of those story ballets that require some program note assistance for those unfamiliar with the plot. Hanna Glawari is a wealthy widow from the fictitious country of Pontevedro. The nation's aristocracy largely resides in Paris, and it is here that they ponder their homeland's dire financial crisis. The Pontevedrian expat community needs Hanna to marry a fellow countryman to keep her fortune safe from foreign hands, so they choose the affable, yet, perpetually tipsy Count Danilo for the job. All bets are off when Hanna and Danilo meet and the pair realizes they share more 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 the production's glimmering prettiness. The true focal point is Hynd's piquant, joyous choreography and Franz Lahár whimsical, fancy-free music. The ballroom scene in Act I is a never-ending cycle of gorgeous waltz steps and handsome configurations that fill the stage with ornate costume work by Roberta Guidi de Bagno.

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 Hanna's soiree. Of course, these folk dances take their inspiration from ballet's pantheon of character dances, 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 dancers 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.

The Verdict: 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' nuanced realization of the contemplative Danilo give the narrative an emotional weight that makes it fully edifying. Lovely dancing, heartfelt partnering, and enchanting design work - now that's a champagne toast I can raise my glass to.

The Merry Widow runs through September 29 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.

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