Some delightful acting and singing is hamstrung by meagre stage sets and an earthbound orchestra.

Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow should be a two-hour dance party. Its three acts are set at balls and the score is a mix of waltz and folk dance. To carry the evening off requires space on stage and pace from the pit. Opera Australia’s new production provided neither. Its delights were in the minor roles with singers who can act. Its charms came from the two principals.

Yvonne Kenny as the cheerful widow works on the bright side of matronly and the shapely side of statuesque. Her Vilja was beautifully articulated and delicately shaded, attributes she sustained throughout the evening.

Her great love is a cut-price Don Juan to whose shallowness and callousness Jeffrey Black paid improper respect. His voice was stretched across baritone and tenor yet proved convincing emotionally as he struggled not to admit to himself his love for the widow.

As the young lovers, Tiffany Speight was sprightly and Kanen Breen supplied the high tenor essential in operetta. Supporting singers were faultless in their interventions, ever willing to risk their reputations and their bones to achieve the ridiculous.

The Merry Widow pitches showstopping tunes against an action-clogging storyline. The Jeremy Sams translation boosts the dialogue along. Given that the plot pivots on an insolvent bank, a topical crack or two at company auditors would not have gone amiss.

As ever, John Bolton-Wood as the ambassador to Paris made the most ludicrous lines both funny and credible. In this department he had the assistance of the sublime Bob Hornery as embassy messenger. A director in tune with the piece would have inserted the Gendarmes’ Duet for this fantastic pair. That other trooper, Rosemary Gunn, was a delicious tragic figure, whether throwing discretion to the wind or kicking her legs in the air.

The insuperable problem is the set for which its designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and the director Simon Phillips share the responsibility. Yet again, a revolving stage turned into evidence that machinery can never deliver what the imagination lacks. Here, the production concept had no energy to make the skirts whirl and tails flare.

Worse still, the revolve was occupied by an arc of steps which got in the way, as did the giant cigarette box out of the top of which popped the stars. This trick entry was a winner the first time, but should then have been dragged to the back along with the staircase to leave room for fun and games. Instead, these contraptions were thrust forward so that such action as was possible was cramped on the apron.

Can this poverty of ideas be explained as one more consequence of the state of Opera Australia’s finances? For The Widow to succeed, it needs to overwhelm the creaks in its libretto with lavish scenes. The changes to this set were little more than shifting a string of gigantic pearls from one side of the stage to the other.

The set’s barrier against movement became the more annoying when the male dancers gave a modern rendition of Slavic folk. Choreographer Ross Coleman deserved more room and a longer interlude. Nick Schlieper’s lighting should have taken more cues from the primary colours of Hugh Colman’s costuming.

The band lacked bounce, cloying when it should have swung. The chorus was sweet behind Vilja but took flight only once, just before the end. The cluttered stage prevented the musicians and singers picking up the rhythm. The cast got more lift from spasms of rhythmic clapping out of an audience which hummed along.