Of all Lehár’s operatic
output The Merry Widow has stood the test
of time. It is interesting to note that any BBC performance
would have been assigned to Radio 2 until New York’s Metropolitan
Opera upgraded the work’s respectability by mounting a production.
This was relayed to Radio 3 and so is now accepted as not
being too light-weight for Radio 3.
Lehár was a composer who
tried to gain the interest of theatre-goers with operettas
written between 1893 and 1904. None succeeded in captivating
public interest until in 1905 he composed The Merry Widow.
Its libretto started life as a French play by Alexander
Bergen. This was adapted and translated into German by Leon
& Stein. They sensibly retained the Maxim’s Parisian
nightclub to provide a lively and colourful Act III. Lehár
was not in fact their first choice of composer. It was offered
first to Heuberger for setting, but they disliked his initial
attempts and approached Lehár instead.
When Lehár moved to Vienna
he was in a good position to study the operetta form from
the variety of works that played through the late 1890s.
His robustly tuneful style needs no introduction yet it
is interesting to know that his background was that of a
Apart from The Widow’s
captivating music, it is always a pleasure to find a modern
operatic production enhanced with good staging and appealing
scenery. So often one is expected to accept inadequate minimalistic
sets: consequently, such productions do not often make attractive
video presentations. The production unit chooses to run
titles over the opening number; this for me is a disappointment.
It would have been so easy to use a shot of the auditorium
as backing for this purpose.
From the outset the spectacular
ballroom scene of the first Act bubbles with aristocratic
life. Good stage business, fast pace and elegant groupings
give a charming ambience in which this frothy folly takes
place. Much attention has been paid to the acting: a mischievously
flirtatious Valencienne partnered by a particularly attentive
Camille gives us a delightful “A highly respectable wife”
while Baron Zeta ably holds attention with his robust presence
and authoritative singing.
The star of the show, Anna
(mezzo) is well balanced with Danilo in their duets. However,
despite a good stage presence and a Nureyev-likeness appropriate
for this egocentric part, I would have preferred Danilo
to be played by a purer tenor rather than, as here, one
with distinctly baritone overtones. This point put aside,
it must be said that his drunken entrance and sensuous encounter
with Anna is very well acted. Unusually, his entrance song,
“You’ll find me at Maxim’s” is sung without any ladies’
chorus, unlike the English version by Phil Park. In the
moonlit Act 2 Garden scene with silvery weeping willows
hanging like a frieze Lehár’s Hungarian roots show in his
opening Pontevedrian peasant dance. Anna’s Viennese “Vilja”
is sung with feeling and charm. Perhaps attention is
stolen by Camille’s Romance duet with Valencienne,
so beautifully sung by this high tenor. The finale of the
act sees Anna ridiculing Danilo successfully in a vivacious
and energetic manner. The attention-seeking Valencienne
as a Grisette in Act 3 clearly enjoys herself in a fast-moving
dancing spectacle involving waiters and tarty pink can-can
dancers. A bonus to the performance is the extended curtain
call where the conductor comes on stage, is adorned with
a pink grisette fur and a member of the cast steals to the
pit to conduct an encore.
The large orchestra is
good, but there are moments when blended harmonies are a
bit edgy. Also some of the orchestral arrangements seem
to have been altered, and not to good effect - or is it
that I am severely conditioned by previous performances?
The voices are well balanced with each other yet at times
the orchestra is a little high.
The video presentation
is excellent with good camera angles and framing. An opera
video is much more appealing when we have good stage visuals,
and here the spectacular sets of this Zurich production
are a delight. Why they had to roll opening credits after
the Introduction to Act 1 had started I cannot comprehend.
Act 2 runs straight on from the Act 1 finale after brief
applause, with no caption only a shot of the orchestra to
tell us where we are.
There are three audio settings
and subtitles in five languages along with the usual scene
selection, but not related to each musical number.