The online opera guide to the merry widow
“The Merry Widow” was Franz Lehàr’s fifth operetta and its success exceeded everything that had ever existed in the genre. During his lifetime, the piece was performed 300,000 times worldwide and is still one of the most popular operettas today.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
The code of the golden operetta
With “the merry widow” Lehar founded the time of the “silver operetta”, which was based on the achievements of the “golden operetta”.
The inventor of the operetta fifty years earlier was undoubtedly Jacques Offenbach, who, at the age of 14, began his training at the conservatory in Paris with the family coming from germanic Cologne. He opened his own theater in 1855 and three years later he composed “the mother of all operettas” his “Orpheus in the Underworld”. The work quickly became popular throughout Europe and the Theater an der Wien commissioned Franz von Suppé to come up with an Austrian operetta, which he redeemed in 1860 with “Das Pensionat”. The rest is history, the era of Johann Strauss & Co. began and became the golden age. This era ended in Paris already in 1880 with Offenbach’s death and in Vienna with the death of Millöcker, Strauss and von Suppé in 1899 and 1895 respectively.
What remained was the recipe for success of this style. The code of the operetta, which Lehar internalized, consisted of elements of the Viennese and Parisian operetta:
- Frivolity, satire and higher nonsense
- fast, music numbers like gallop, cancan
- Diverse use of dance rhythms, in Vienna especially the waltz
- Simple, effective harmonies, mainly in major
- Musical local color
- Sympathetic role models
- Romantic love stories
- Happy End
The bumpy genesis of the Merry Widow
In 1901 the Hungarian-born Wilhelm Karzcag leased the Theater an der Wien to make it the center of a new Viennese operetta. Lehàr was able to celebrate his first respectable success there in 1902 with “Wiener Fraun”. For the 1905/06 season, Victor Léon and Leo Stein wrote the libretto “The Merry Widow” but were not satisfied with the music of the commissioned composer and offered the commission to Lehàr, who accepted and set to work. Because an operetta flopped, Karzcag absolutely wanted to bring the Merry Widow forward. He had the music played in Lehàr’s apartment. Astonished by Lehàr’s product, he is said to have proclaimed the famous sentence: “Das is ka musik!” (“This is not music!) But Stein and Léon were able to convince him of the opposite, and the work was staged head over heels. All stage material was cobbled together from existing productions, and the musicians were given only a few stage rehearsals. Despite much improvisation, the premiere was already satisfactory and to Karzcag’s surprise, the audience’s approval was good from the beginning, and the operetta quickly became a box-office hit.
The libretto – at the beginning was a stolen story
The two librettists took the story from Meilhac’s “L’attaché d’ambassade,” but alienated it just enough to avoid paying royalties, which later led to a lawsuit. They unceremoniously transported the location of the plot from Germany to Montenegro. But they had not expected the authorities to intervene, because by court order they were forbidden to make fun of Montenegro – a country belongig to the Austrian Imperial Royal multi-ethnic state . Léon and Stein now made a joke of it and named the operetta state “Pontevedro”. The ambassador was now called “Zeta” (after Montenegro’s largest river), the male lead was called Danilo (after the Crown Prince of Montenegro) and the factotum Niegus was christened after the Montenegrin royal family Petrovic-Njegos. The list is not yet complete and and every listener knew then which country was meant.
An ingenious mixture of Viennese and Parisian operetta
Lehar was born in Slovenia and spent his childhood in Hungary and the Czech Republic. His professional years as a military bandmaster brought him to all the countries of the Austro-Hungarian multi-ethnic state and he was very familiar with the musical culture of these countries. He used many stylistic devices of these Eastern European countries in the Merry Widow, such as the Vilja song, Colo dances, the waltzes etc.
Of course he was also familiar with Offenbach’s music. What he now did together with the librettists was simply brilliant. In this operetta he changed the style from piece to piece. An Offenbach piece of music (e.g. “Da geh ich zu Maxim”, “dummer Reitersmann”, the Grisette piece etc.) was followed by a piece with k. and k. coloring, again followed by a Parisian piece. This mixture of styles runs through the entire opera and brings variety and color to the performance.
In addition, the pieces of music are kept short. Even the catchy tunes are only sparsely repeated, so that the listener thinks with each number: “What a pity it’s already over.”
DIE LUSTIGE WITWE ACT I
Synopsis: At the Pontevedrin Embassy in Paris. The host welcomes his guests, they celebrate the birthday of the sovereign.
Baron Zeta opens the ball with a festive Mazurka
Verehrteste Damen und Herren – Karajan
Valencienne and Rousillon – the Impossible Love
Synopsis: Valencienne, the ambassador’s wife, flirts with Camille de Rousillon, who has loved her for some time. But Valencienne resists the advances Rousillon. He writes on Valencienne’s fan: “I love you”.
Ich bin eine anständige Frau – Gfrerer / Beczala
The widow of the century
Synopsis: Everyone’s expecting Hanna. Glawari. Her elderly husband died recently and she is the heiress of the million-dollar fortune. The ambassador has the task of ensuring that she marries a man from Pontevedrino so that the millions remain in the country. His plan is to marry the ambassador secretary Count Danilovich to her. The servant Nyegus was able to locate him in the nightclub “Chez Maxim”, and he will soon arrive in the Palais. And now Hannah Glawari appears, accompanied by a swarm of Parisian men who are after the heiress.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was called the “widow of the century”. Her widow was an ideal opera voice in the operetta, combining the comedic femme fatale with the musicality of the artist.
Bitte meine Herren – Schwarzkopf
Synopsis: The Glawari invites everyone to her house for tomorrow. She is going to give a real Pontevedrin feast. With mixed feelings she hears that Count Danilovich also attends the party. The two have a common past. And now the count appears, he is slightly buzzed.
O Vaterland is one of the unforgettable pieces from this opera that breathes the spirit of the fin de siècle and whose chorus became a catchy tune.
O Vaterland…da geh ich zu Maxim – Gardiner/Skohus
Hanna and Danilo – like cat and mouse
Synopsis: Negus tells him that the Glawari is here and that she has inherited millions. The count sighs when he hears her name. He rarely spends his time in the office, but enjoys the Paris nightlife. He decides to take a quick nap on the sofa. In the next room, Rousillon continues to try his luck at Valencienne.
In this opera 2 couples are in the centre. While the couple Glawari/Danilowitsch is covers the comedic part, Valencienne/Rousillon form the serious counterpart. Lehar puts beautiful, light-footed melodies in their throats. «Zauber der Häuslichkeit» is one of these magical moments.
Zauber der Häuslichkeit – Rothenberger
Synopsis: Glawari wants to retreat for a moment and coincidence lets her meet Danilowitsch, who is lying on the sofa. Not a minute passes and the two of them quarrel. Some time ago, they were about to get married, but for the count’s family her rural and bourgeois origins were not good enough. The wounds are still fresh. When the count says, that she can’t impress him with her millions, she leaves the room snorting. Now the baron finally finds Danilo and asks him to marry the Glawari for reasons of state. Danilovich categorically refuses. Dance music can be heard from the hall. It is ladies’ choice. Everyone wants to dance with the Glawari.
Damenwahl – Studer/Gardiner
Synopsis: When the Glavari wants to choose a gentleman, Danilowitsch appears with dancers from the cabaret who take all the gentlemen in their arms. He looks triumphantly at her.
The role of Danilovich is written for baritone, but was sometimes sung by tenors. We hear the tenor Nicolai Gedda in this ball scene.
O kommet ihr Ballsirenen – Gedda
Synopsis: Valencienne also has a plan: she wants to pair Roussillon with the Glawari and pushes him to dance with Hanna. But Hanna goes to Danilo and invites him to dance. He has a new cunning ruse in mind. He owns the dance and auctions it for 10,000 francs for charity. Everybody is outraged and refuse, only Danilowitsch smiles. Rousillon comes forward, but Valencienne is now jealous and forbids it. Now Danilovich is ready to dance. Glawari is huffy, but Danilo grabs her and they dance a polka.
DIE LUSTIGE WITWE ACT II
Synopsis: The following day, in the garden of Hanna Glawari’s palace. The guests enjoy Pontevedrin music and dance.
Vilya is a dreamy folk song about the love of a hunter to a fairy. With this song Hanna wants to allure Danilo.
The conductor of the next recording was Robert Stolz, who himself was a famous operetta composer. The result is a luxuriant and heart-warming music, beautiful rubati and breathing accompaniment by the Vienna Philharmonic. Stolz was a brilliant interpreter of this work, he had the presumption to claim that he was the conductor of the premiere of this opera, which was demonstrably not true.
Hilde Güden sings a fantastic Vilja.
Es lebt eine Vilja – Güden/Stolz
Schwarzkopf’s interpretation is also captivating, longing whispers intoxicating the listener.
Es lebt eine Vilja – Schwarzkopf
Emancipation and clichés
Synopsis: Count Danilo has also joined. Hanna teases him with a horseman’s song.
Today, Hanna would be called a modern woman. At the time of the world premiere such a role design caused a sensation. Valencienne, on the other hand, is the counterpart to her; she corresponds more to the traditional, conservative role model.
Mädel…dummer Reitersmann – Schwarzkopf
Synopsis: Danilo has found the mysterious fan and everyone is philosophizing about how to deal with women who become unfaithful to their husband.
Das Studium der Weiber ist schwer – NN
The ice between Danilo and Hanna begins to break
Synopsis: Hanna and Danilo run into each other. Hanna flirts with him, but at the beginning Danilo is cold and reserved, but then dances the Kolo, a Pontevedrin dance, with her.
Synopsis: Baron Zeta wants to discuss with Danilo and his Cabinet the next steps in the Glawari case and he schedules a meeting in the pavilion. Valencienne and Rousillon meet. At her insistence, Rousillon wants to propose to Hanna Glawari. Rousillon sings last love song for Valencienne.
Wie eine Rosenknospe – Bezcala
Synopsis: Rousillon wants one last kiss. Valencienne wants to grant it, but discreetly in the pavilion.
Roussillon and Valencienne sing another of their luxuriant melodies. How is it possible that Lehar was able to create so many great melodies for this opera?
Sieh dort den kleinen Pavillon – Beczala / Gfrerer
Glawari rescues Valencienne from a compromising situation
Synopsis: Njegus sees the two go into the pavilion. Zeta appears and wants to hold the meeting in the pavilion. Njegus warns him that Roussillon is inside with a lady. Maybe it’s the mysteriously married woman! Zeta immediately locks the doors of the pavilion. His curiosity is so great that he peeps through the keyhole … and sees his wife. He wants to break the door open. In the meantime Njegus has intervened and Hanna Glawari steps out of the pavilion to save Valencienne. Zeta is completely confused and Danilo, who was standing next to Zeta is suddenly jealous that Hanna had a rendezvous with another man. Hanna sees his jealousy and triumphs. Danilo has enough. He just wants to leave and go to Maxim.
Finale Akt II – Gardiner/Skohus
DIE LUSTIGE WITWE ACT III
Synopsis: In Hanna Glawari’s palais. In honour of Danilo, Glawari has hired Grisettes who dance a can-can.
„Ja, wir sind es, die Grisetten“
The famous duet ” Lippen schweigen “
Synopsis: Danilo and Zeta read an urgent telegram from the minister: “If Glawari millions do not stay in the country, there is a risk of national bankruptcy.” When he sees Hanna, Danilo wants to ban her from marrying Roussillon. Hanna tells her the true story of the pavilion and Danilo is relieved. For the first time he shows her his affection.
Another famous, immortal melody of operetta history. Lehàr was surprised at the popularity of the melody of “Lips are silent”. In the first version, it was merely a humming tune, and it was not until the following year that a text was added to it.
Lippen schweigen (1) – Güden/Grunden/Stolz
In the next version we hear Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who sings wonderfully elegantly and Wächter is a authentic Danilo:
Lippen schweigen (2) – Schwarzkopf/Wächter/Matacic
You can listen to an interesting audio document from 1906. It is a recording with the singers Louis Treumann and Mizzi Günther, the Danilo and the Hanna of the first merry widow. This recording was made a year later and probably shows how the operetta sounded at that time. It is strongly reminiscent of Vaudeville and was obviously less operatically sung than in modern times.
Lippen schweigen (3) – Treumann / Günther
Synopsis: Zeta joins them and Danilo can announce that the Glawari will not marry Rousillon. Zeta is very satisfied, but then the fan reappears. Zeta puts 2 and 2 together and realizes that it is his wife’s fan. He tells his wife that they are now divorced and proposes to Hanna to save his fatherland. She has to disappoint him, because according to her husband’s will she loses the money at a marriage. Danilo mood brightens suddenly up and he says to Hanna the redeeming “I love you”. So Hanna knows that he doesn’t want her for the money. She smiles and adds that according to the will the money belongs … to the future husband. The two fall into each other’s arms. Valencienne asks her husband to read the back of the fan. Touched, he reads: “I am a respectable wife”.
DG with Cheryl Studer, Bo Skovhus and Barbara Bonney under the direction of John Eliott Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to DIE LUSTIGE WITWE / THE MERRY WIDOW by Franz Lehar.